Tuesday, July 31, 2007

School of hard knocks - Columbia project closes biz's doors

School of hard knocks
Columbia project closes biz's doors
Tuesday, July 31st 2007, 4:00 AM

Tony Garcia stands outside his auto shop yesterday
at W. 131st St. and Broadway. He's been notified that
the property must be vacated by tonight for Columbia
University expansion.

Columbia University's massive West Harlem campus expansion project today spells the end of the auto shop Tony Garcia manages at Broadway and W.131st St.

"It's not fair," said Garcia, father of seven, who was told the business will have to vacate the block-long building by tonight.

"I came here [from the Dominican Republic] with little," the 38-year-old mechanic said. "I work hard and now it's taken from me."

Several auto shops in the largely industrial area are among the casualties of Columbia's planned expansion. Some have closed already and others are just counting the days. Today was the original deadline, but some businesses are fighting it.

"It's difficult to find another job in this area because all the auto shops are closing," Garcia said.
Columbia owns more than half of the targeted development sites in the neighborhood - from 125th to 133rd Sts., between Broadway and the Hudson River. That will be the site of its "Manhattanville Project."

The Ivy League institution, in need of space to house new programs, employees and students, has sketched plans to build new facilities in West Harlem over the next two decades. The school claims the expansion will bring 6,000 new jobs to the Manhattanville area.

Learning a lesson from its controversial plans for a gym in Morningside Heights in the 1960s that touched off wild community and student protests, Columbia has been working with the community this time around.

"We're communicating," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9.

He lauded the university for working on a building-by-building basis, but said a major community issue is a fear that the school will employ eminent domain to acquire properties for what is essentially a private project.


NB - Once again the DailyNews in their rush to press misquotes me. I did not laud the University working on a "building-by-building basis". What I recall saying is that the community's had concerns about the size and bulk of the buildings and other features of CU expansion in addtion to eminent domain and that CB9M opposes eminent domain, for the taking of private property for the benefit of private developer.

I also mentioned that technicaly these tenants were not CU's tenants but sub-tenants of Mr. Juan German who reached a deal with CU and had agreed to leave the premises by July 31st. Mr. German made no provisions for his sub-tenants but that CU had indicated to me that they would look at each of German's sub-tenants on an individual basis to see what they could do them although legally they had no such responsibility.
When asked if I had access to CU senior administration, I said yes, we do communicate as needed. - JRM

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Now You Own It, Soon You Don’t?

In the Region

Now You Own It, Soon You Don’t?

Laura Pedrick for The New York Times
Lori Ann Vendetti, outside the home of her parents, Carmen and Josephine Vendetti, is opposing a 12-year bid by the City of Long Branch, N.J., to take their homes through eminent domain so a developer can build luxury condominiums.

Laura Pedrick for The New York Times
Members of the Vendetti family talk with neighbors.

Published: July 29, 2007

IT’S not so much the modest bungalow’s spacious second-floor addition or the expansive side yard that gets to Lori Ann Vendetti.

An artist's rendering of the plan by Stanley M. Seligson to replace houses in a Norwalk, Conn., neighborhood with theaters, restaurants and apartments.

Thomas MacDonald for The New York Times
Nancy Esposito, who is resisting plans to be uprooted from Casey's Sheet Metal Service in Norwalk, Conn., which her family has run for 15 years, to make way for the Seligson development.

The thing that keeps her fighting is the misty ocean air that floats through her doorway when she lets her dog out in the morning. The salty aroma can transport her back to childhood weekends spent playing on the beach with her two brothers, long since dead and gone.

Neither Ms. Vendetti, 46, nor her parents across the street believe they can afford another place within a sniff of the ocean if the City of Long Branch, N.J., wins its 12-year effort to turn their homes over to a private developer who wants to build luxury condominiums.

“We always feel like things are stacked against us,” said Ms. Vendetti, who has lived in her home for 12 years. “But if they’re going to take it from me, they’re going to take it with a fight.”

During the last two years, homeowners and property-rights advocates across the country have echoed that sentiment, and state lawmakers have answered. A controversial United States Supreme Court decision in June 2005, which upheld the power of local governments to seize private property for the benefit of private businesses, inspired an uprising that led 40 states to pass laws that rein in, to varying degrees, that authority.

But legislatures in the three states in the New York metropolitan area, long seen by property-rights advocates as home to some of the worst abuses of eminent domain, have done little to change the status quo.

New Jersey and New York are among the worst states in the country for eminent domain abuses — New Jersey is really awful,” said Dana Berliner, a senior lawyer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., which represents residential and business owners facing condemnation. “What’s interesting is that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are some of the few states that have not managed to pass any decent legislation.”

In Connecticut, where the United States Supreme Court case originated, Gov. M. Jodi Rell late last month signed a law that includes a prohibition on taking property “primarily” to increase local tax revenues, leaving open that reasoning as a secondary cause.

New York, which already allowed the taking of property for private use, saw its lawmakers introduce 17 related bills in 2006. But the Legislature passed only those laws seeking to ban two specific projects.

Similarly, New Jersey legislators have been unable to pass any bill. The State Supreme Court recently stepped into the breach, arguing that cities and towns cannot condemn properties simply because another use could be more productive. That ruling, in Gallenthin Realty Development v. Borough of Paulsboro, has already had an impact on several projects, including a plan to build 2,000 condominiums in downtown Newark.

Other states have instituted more precise definitions of blight, set minimum compensation levels above market value for the owners of seized properties and restricted eminent domain to more traditional public projects like schools and roads. The legislative changes have been driven by an unusual alliance of conservative Republican property-rights advocates and liberals interested in the rights of lower-income people.

Not everyone believes such measures are needed. It remains to be seen if the new laws will protect property owners without chilling redevelopment projects. “You had this huge uproar,” said Larry Morandi, who has tracked the new laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures, “and an incredibly fast legislative response. The effect of that legislation will be seen in how it is implemented, and that takes time.”

While supporters of the current laws say a reasoned analysis would show that eminent domain is most often employed as a last resort and without major conflict, what has driven the push for change and has led to so many lawsuits is anger at the potential loss of control over such a fundamental aspect of life.

The lead plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court case, Susette Kelo, a nurse who lived in a pink Victorian cottage in New London, Conn., opposed the town’s condemnation of her neighborhood to make way for a private development of offices, condominiums and a hotel. The 5-to-4 majority opinion held that promoting economic development met the “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment that allows condemnations. In a dissenting opinion in the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave voice to the fear that started a revolt: “Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded.”

IN Norwalk, Conn., Nancy Esposito doesn’t want to be uprooted or upgraded. Her family has owned and run Casey’s Sheet Metal Service for 15 years. Five years ago, a developer showed up offering to buy their building as part of a plan to remake several blocks. Ms. Esposito has resisted, and watched as the developer bought most of the buildings and land around her.

“They keep saying they want to make this area a destination,” Ms. Esposito said. “I say that it is a destination. It’s my destination.”

The developer, Stanley M. Seligson, a Norwalk native, envisions a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood spanning several blocks, with more than 500,000 square feet of stores, restaurants and theaters, 350 apartments and a large medical center. Mr. Seligson said he has so far acquired 75 percent of the property and was determined to acquire the remaining properties without the town invoking eminent domain. Town officials see the neighborhood as part of an old urban core that has not responded to less sweeping redevelopment incentives.

Four contiguous redevelopment projects are in the works, all of which have involved or could involve taking property through eminent domain if negotiations between the developer and property owners fail, said Susan Sweitzer, a senior project manager for the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.

“The impetus is on the private developer to make this a nonissue,” she said.

Ms. Esposito said she believed the cards were already stacked against her.

“They keep saying they will use eminent domain as a last resort,” she said. “But when they have the ultimate power to take your property, it’s a done deal. There is no such thing as private property anymore.”

Governor Rell responded to the United States Supreme Court ruling involving the Kelo case by asking local governments to observe a voluntary moratorium on condemnations for private development until the state legislature could act. This year, she introduced legislation.

“It is time to clarify our eminent domain laws and make it absolutely clear when and why governments can — and cannot — take private property for public purposes,” Mrs. Rell said in a statement in March.

The law that Mrs. Rell signed requires that municipal legislative bodies approve eminent domain seizures by a two-thirds majority and that property owners be reimbursed at 125 percent of fair market value. It also built in other protective measures for property owners. A spokesman for the governor said Mrs. Rell viewed the bill as “a considerable step forward.”

“She has always felt that it was the Legislature’s responsibility to define the proper scope of eminent domain, when and whether it should he used for any kind of economic development activity,” said the spokesman, Rich Harris.

But property-rights advocates say the law’s ban on citing increased tax revenues as a primary reason for condemnation will do little to clarify concerns about when property can be taken.

James S. Alesi, a state senator from the Rochester area, held a series of hearings across the state on eminent domain after the Kelo decision. He said he was repeatedly told that New York didn’t need a handful of hastily drafted bills, but rather a commission to study the issue.

“I thought it was beneficial to learn one key thing: We don’t really have to do a lot in New York State,” he said. “As compared to other areas around the country, New York’s laws are pretty strong.”

The New York State Bar Association has been the most prominent supporter of that position. Patricia E. Salkin, chairwoman of the association’s eminent domain task force, said state laws might need tweaking, including a passage to increase public involvement in redevelopment plans and to extend the 30-day period allowed for owners of condemned property to file appeals. But she said states that passed more sweeping laws risked losing vital projects.

“We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Ms. Salkin, director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School. “We should make sure that it’s a fair playing field for everybody.”

State Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Democrat from Greenburgh in Westchester, said the choice was not black and white. “The bottom line is we can fix the law so it protects average people and still maintain it as a tool,” Mr. Brodsky said. “The bar is entrenched on this one, and they’re wrong.”

In 2004, Mr. Brodsky pushed through a bill that required that towns notify by mail property owners facing condemnation.

It followed a controversy in Port Chester, in which a local business owner hadn’t seen the Westchester village’s notice in a local newspaper that his property was facing condemnation to make way for a Stop & Shop supermarket.

The 30 days that the state law allows for appeals passed before the businessman, Bill Brody, had even heard about the plan. A federal judge this month ruled that Mr. Brody’s due process rights had been violated.

“I think it’s obvious that people are upset by what eminent domain is being used for,” Mr. Brody said, “and I think things are going to change.”

Not all redevelopment projects engender large controversy. On Long Island, the Village of Hempstead is moving forward with a $2 billion plan to replace 26 acres in the village’s downtrodden center with a mix of 2,500 housing units, 600,000 square feet of retail space and a performing arts center. The city has agreed to sell 21 properties it owns to the developer and seize up to 58 privately owned properties if the developer cannot come to terms with the owners. Most of the concerns voiced so far, including at a packed meeting last week, have involved ensuring that the plan includes a significant amount of affordable housing and that current residents receive enough compensation to find new homes.

Mr. Brodsky introduced a bill last year calling for the appointment of an eminent domain ombudsman, compensating displaced homeowners at 150 percent of fair market value, and requiring that all condemnations for economic development be part of a comprehensive plan.

THE bill gained no traction in the State Assembly. “This is an area where there’s a lot of comfort with a bad law, and that’s unfortunate,” Mr. Brodsky said.

Mr. Alesi, the state senator from Rochester, maintains that state laws need only to be “buffed up” and that the laws may not offer enough protections. Courts are relied on to catch abuses, but average people don’t have the resources for a legal fight with the government, he said. “No one should have the American dream turned into their own personal nightmare because of the government,” he said.

Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the Town of Paulsboro had overreached in relying on a consultant’s determination that an undeveloped 63-acre parcel could be condemned because it was “not fully productive.”

“Under that approach, any property that is operated in less than optimal manner is arguably ‘blighted,’ ” wrote Chief Justice James R. Zazzali in the court’s unanimous opinion. “If such an all-encompassing definition were adopted, most property in the state would be eligible for redevelopment.”

Citing the Supreme Court ruling, an Essex County Superior Court judge ruled this month that Newark could not designate as blighted a 14-acre area on and around Mulberry Street so the land could be used to build condominiums. Several property owners had fought the city’s efforts to take the land by eminent domain, arguing to the court that the area was still productive. A spokeswoman for Mayor Cory A. Booker said the city had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

And an appellate panel last week rejected Lodi officials’ efforts to replace two trailer parks with housing and shops. A newly elected Borough Council had dropped the plan earlier this month.
A bill that would more narrowly define blight passed the New Jersey State Assembly last year but has been tied up in a State Senate committee since.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities opposes limiting the power of municipalities in using eminent domain. Its opinion carries weight in a state with 566 municipalities, a strong tradition of home rule, and one in which many legislators are also mayors of their hometowns.

William G. Dressel, executive director of the league, said that with little undeveloped land left in the state, and with towns increasingly relying on property taxes to provide services, responsible town leaders must look for ways to redevelop unproductive land. “We were quite frankly relieved that the court did not unravel the eminent domain statutes as it relates to the use of that tool for economic development purposes,” he said. “We feel very strongly that eminent domain is a viable economic development tool in New Jersey that is used sparingly.”

The state’s public advocate, Ronald K. Chen, said a 1992 revision of the state statute created the “not fully productive” justification that “opened up the floodgates” for the improper use of eminent domain.

Mr. Chen’s office recently issued a report that listed the plan in Long Branch, where Ms. Vendetti lives near the beach, under the heading “Bogus Blight.” It said the town based its conclusion on “superficial” exterior inspections that noted deteriorating paint or chipped masonry.

Nothing appears to be decrepit about the Vendettis’ homes.

Carmen Vendetti, 80, had saved his money driving a truck to buy his family, in 1960, a modest respite from the harsher environs of their home in Newark. He and his wife, Josephine, moved there full time after he retired. Ms. Vendetti saved her money from a job with Amtrak and bought a house across the street from her parents in 1995. Two months later, she attended a meeting where a developer’s model of the neighborhood showed luxury buildings all along the oceanfront.

“They had a house on my lot,” she said. “I just laughed and thought, ‘How are they going to do that?’ No one ever used the words ‘eminent domain.’ “

But Adam Schneider, the mayor of Long Branch for 17 years, said some in the area ignored the redevelopment plan, thinking it would fail, as had many before. Some homeowners have accepted offers of units made affordable to them in the new development, he said. He said that with just 20 percent of the construction completed, the beachfront has been transformed from a dangerous area of boarded-up storefronts to an upscale, year-round destination that includes packed restaurants and a popular park.

He said he thought the recent emotional backlash may dissuade officials in other areas from even trying such a sweeping turnaround using eminent domain.

“Politically it won’t work anymore,” he said. “I think the time has come and gone.”


Thursday, July 26, 2007

City's Developers Agree: ‘Harlem Has Arrived'

Date: Thu, 26 Jul 2007 10:13:38 -0400
To: reysmont
From: "Tenant"
Subject: Weep over Harlem
July 26, 2007 Edition > Section: Real Estate > Printer-Friendly Version

City's Developers Agree: "Harlem Has Arrived"
July 26, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/59169

A state-of-the-art, 640,000-square-foot office building with retail on the lower levels, a 200-room hotel, Manhattan's first big-box retail center, and a blossoming of trendy boutiques and restaurants: This is a description not of Chelsea, the fast-rising High Line area, or Lower Manhattan. The neighborhood is the legendary home of the Apollo Theater, the great community of Harlem.

Situated at 126th Street and Adam Clayton
Powell Boulevard, Harlem Lanes opened
last year. The owners were provided with a
$350,000 loan from the Upper Manhattan
Empowerment Zone.

"It is incredible witnessing the resurgence of this once-overlooked area," the principal at KG Plymouth Group, Michael Davis, said.

"There are so many projects taking place that are shaping what the future of what Harlem will look like; and while a number of questions linger ­ from the river-to-river 125th street rezoning, and others ­ the most significant certainty is that Harlem has arrived."

He continued: "The market has created a magnitude of opportunities for owners and developers to create projects that will have a long-term positive impact on the city and will be the springboard for Harlem's continued prosperity and growth."

Next month, construction is scheduled to begin on Hotel 124, a 130,000-square-foot property located on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. It is the first new hotel in Harlem in more than 40 years and may include residential condominiums on the top floors. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone intends to provide a $2.8 million subordinated loan, based on a projected project cost of $75 million, which will create in excess of 61 full-time permanent jobs for the community.

The president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, Kenneth Knuckles, said Harlem real estate has strong value because of "the incredible housing stock, great transportation network, and central location, and, of course, the considerable price difference in comparison to Manhattan below 96th Street.

"Building on the rezoning and the extensive development of Frederick Douglas Boulevard between 110th and 125th streets, we see the emergence of Frederick Douglas Boulevard as a prime mixed-use corridor with a core concentration of national retail," he said.

This fall, a joint venture of Vornado Realty Trust, MacFarlane Partners ­ which is representing the California Public Employees Retirement Systems ­ and Integrated Holdings is expected to break ground on Harlem Park, a 640,000-square-foot tower at 125th Street and Park Avenue, adjacent to the Metro North train stop. The 21-story tower would have about 100,000 square feet of retail, underground parking, and 540,000 square feet of Class A office space. The office space is expected to rent for more than a 50% discount for brand new space in Midtown.

Last month, a total of 16 prime retail buildings on the 125th Street retail corridor were sold for a record price of $50 million, the highest price ever paid for retail space in Harlem. These buildings, totaling 35,000 square feet of space, were sold to the Sigfield Group for $1,429 a square foot. The properties are located at 112-118 W. 125th St., 250 W. 125th St., 301-303 W. 125th St., and 2331-2349 Frederick Douglas Blvd.

"The Harlem sales market continues to outpace the rest of Manhattan with demand exceeding supply, and new shops and restaurants opening weekly," the managing partner at Massey Knakal Realty Services, Shimon Shkury, said. "The infrastructure is back-filling at an ultra-aggressive pace, which makes Central Harlem one of the most dynamic markets in the country."

A principal at USHA Holdings, Atul Bhatara, said Harlem "is becoming a total residential, commercial, retail, and intellectual hub. From the luxury developments to the commerce on 125th Street, to the expanding restaurant destinations all over Harlem, and of course the expansion of City College and Columbia, Harlem is forging an identity for itself, not only distinguishing itself from other areas of Manhattan, but from Manhattan itself."

This September, Touro College Medical School's first class will begin studying in the former Blumstein's department store building at 230 W. 125th St. across from the Apollo Theater. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone provided a $4.7 million loan to Touro College to help build a 50,000-square-foot campus in the former department store, which had been dormant for nearly three decades. The new campus will employ 156 people and serve 1,000 undergraduate and 300 graduate students.

Across the street, adjacent to the Apollo, a joint venture of Grid Properties and the Gotham Organization, the developers of Harlem USA, are planning to build a30,000-square-foot retail complex at 261 W. 125th St. Harlem USA, a 285,000-square-foot retail complex located at West 125th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, opened in 2000. Tenants include Magic Johnson Theater, HMV, Modell's Sporting Goods, K&G Fashion, Old Navy, and Hueman Bookstore.

A developer, Wharton Realty, which is owned by Jeff Sutton, one of Manhattan's most active retail landlords, is planning to construct a 230,000-square-foot tower on the corner of West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. It would contain retail, a community facility, and apartments. Real estate sources say Bed Bath & Beyond may be the anchor tenant.

Last year, the first Harlem-based bowling alley in more than 30 years, Harlem Lanes, opened at the corner of West 126th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, below the Alhambra Ballroom. The 24-lane bowling alley is the only facility north of 42nd Street. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone provided a $350,000 loan to the owners, Sharon Joseph and Gail Richards.

Real estate and community leaders expect the Empire State Development Corporation and its subsidiary, the Harlem Community Development Corporation, to finally select a developer for the Victoria Theater site on West 125th Street. As reported in The New York Sun last month, the Jazz Museum in Harlem is part of a bid by Danforth Development Partners to renovate the Victoria Theater. The Jazz Museum would get between 10,000 and 20,000 square feet of exhibition space. The buildings would include two theaters to be used by the Classical Theater of Harlem, the Bill T. Jones & Arnie Zane Dance Company, and the Harlem School of Arts.

"The capital market drivers are so strong, and they are supported by Manhattan fundamentals of office leasing, that we're in for a long rise in interest in the area," the CEO of the metropolitan region of Cushman & Wakefield, Joseph Harbert, said.

At the southwest corner of 126th Street and Lexington Avenue, Blumenfeld Development is planning to construct Gateway II, a 60,000-square-foot mixed-use office and retail development. The building will be directly behind Gotham Plaza, a 90,000-square-foot three-level building that Blumenfeld Development completed in December 2002.

Next year, Blumenfeld Development and Forest City Ratner expect to complete construction of East River Plaza, a multi-level 500,000-square-foot retail center spanning three city blocks adjacent to the FDR Drive between 116th and 119th streets. It will also have an attached 1,248-car parking facility. The center will be anchored by Manhattan's first Target, a Home Depot, and a Best Buy. Industry leaders expect the project to be one of the most successful retail developments in Manhattan.

Last year, the city's Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for the redevelopment of nearly six acres in East Harlem between 127th and 125th streets and Second and Third avenues. When completed, the project could include about 1.7 million square feet of new residential, retail, and commercial space. The project would facilitate the replacement of most vacant and underutilized land with new affordable housing, press and entertainment businesses, cultural space, and retail uses, and would contain a replacement for the MTA bus storage facility now occupying the space.

According to real estate sources, the leading contenders for the project include Forest City Ratner, Blumenfeld Development, and Vornado Realty Trust.

Industry and community leaders often doubted the renaissance of Harlem. I think a comment by the president of Blumenfeld Development, Ed Blumenfeld, is most appropriate: "I guess we weren't as nuts as everyone thought we were. Unfortunately, we didn't invest enough in Harlem when we had the opportunity to."

Mr. Stoler, a contributing editor to The New York Sun, is a television and radio broadcaster and senior principal at a real estate investment fund. He can be reached at mstoler@newyorkrealestatetv.com.

July 26, 2007 Edition > Section: Real Estate > Printer-Friendly Version

The Tenant Network(tm) for Residential Tenants
TenantNet(tm): http://tenant.net/
email: tenant@tenant.net
Information from TenantNet is from experienced non-attorney tenant
activists and is not considered legal advice.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lender Sees Mortgage Woes for ‘Good’ Risks

From: "Thomasina White"
To: "J Reyes-Montblanc"
Subject: New York Times Article.pdf
Date: Wed, 25 Jul 2007 09:46:03 -0400

Lender Sees Mortgage Woes for ‘Good’ Risks

Published: July 25, 2007

Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, said yesterday that more borrowers with good credit were falling behind on their loans and that the housing market might not begin recovering until 2009 because of a decline in house prices that goes beyond anything experienced in decades.

The news from Countrywide, widely seen as a bellwether for the mortgage market, initiated a sell-off in the stock market, which is at its most volatile in more than a year. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell 30.53 points, or 2 percent, to 1,511.04, its biggest one-day drop in nearly five months. The dollar dropped to a new low against the euro, edging closer to $1.40 to 1 euro. Stocks opened sharply lower in Japan this morning.

The slumping housing market has become the biggest worry for the stock market, which just four days ago set records, because of its potential impact on the broader economy and financial system.

Countrywide’s stark assessment signaled a critical change in the substance and tenor of how housing executives are publicly describing the market. Just a couple of months ago, some executives were predicting a relatively quick recovery and saying that most home loans would be fine with the exception of those made to borrowers with weak credit who stretched too far financially.

Executives at Countrywide had for some time been more skeptical than others but the bluntness of their comments yesterday surprised many on Wall Street. In a conference call with analysts that lasted three hours, Countrywide’s chairman and chief executive, Angelo R. Mozilo, said home prices were falling “almost like never before, with the exception of the Great Depression.”

Nationally, home prices have not fallen in the 35 years or so that the government and private services have tracked them. Some researchers like Robert J. Shiller of Yale have compiled data that goes as far back as 1890 and shows that home prices fell for several years during the 1930s.

Mr. Mozilo said that because of a large number of homes on the market, the housing sector would continue to suffer until sometime in 2008 and not begin recovering until 2009.

Shares of Countrywide fell 10.5 percent, or $3.56 yesterday, to $30.50. The stock steadily declined during the conference call, falling as far as $29.50 before recovering.

Countrywide’s earnings were the latest in a series of shocks that have rattled the markets in the last two months. Recently, Bear Stearns said two of its hedge funds were virtually worthless after brash bets on investments backed by risky mortgages with billions in borrowed money.

Last month, the usually optimistic Robert I. Toll, the chairman and chief executive of the luxury home builder Toll Brothers, acknowledged that housing might not rebound before April 2008. In early February, Mr. Toll had told Wall Street analysts the industry was “at the beginning of the comeback trail.”

Bond ratings agencies have begun to downgrade and re-evaluate mortgage securities, which has virtually shut down the market for certain debt offerings that specialize in home loans. That, in turn, has made it harder for some private equity firms to finance buyouts.

Countrywide, Wells Fargo and other lenders have also stopped offering a popular subprime loan that carried a fixed rate for 2 years and an adjustable rate for 28 years.

Investors are demanding more in return for holding junk bonds and yesterday pushed the yields on the securities to 8.4 percent, the highest they have been in nearly two years, according to KDP Investment Advisors, a research firm.

What was added to the worries yesterday was the idea that even credit-worthy homeowners would default on mortgages at higher rates as home prices fall — and that even a well-run company like Countrywide could be hit by big losses.

At the end of April, home prices were down 2.1 percent from a year ago, according to an index that tracks 20 large metropolitan areas compiled by the research firm Case-Shiller. That compares with an 11.2 percent increase from April 2005 to April 2006.

Countrywide said about 5.4 percent of the home equity loans to customers with good credit that it held an interest in were past due at the end of June, up from 2.2 percent at the end of June 2006. By comparison, more than a fifth of subprime loans were past due at the end of June, up from 13.4 percent a year ago.

“Where you will see prime borrowers have trouble is where they took the riskiest of adjustable-rate mortgages and put nothing down with a first and second combined,” Thomas Lawler, a housing economist, said.

Many of Countrywide’s home equity loans were second mortgages made to people who were financing the full or nearly full cost of their homes. These loans are particularly risky because when house prices are falling and a home is foreclosed and resold, the holder of the first lien is paid off and often there is little left to apply to the second mortgage.

“Countrywide is highlighting what is an industrywide problem,” said Christopher C. Brendler, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus, an investment firm in St. Louis. A second mortgage “is really an unsecured loan like a credit card.”

Countrywide said its customers who are falling behind on payments appear to have lost jobs, had a divorce or fallen ill. Many are living in homes that are no longer worth what they were when the loan was made and cannot refinance because lenders have become stricter.
The company reported second-quarter earnings fell 33 percent, to $485 million, largely because it had to write down the value of loans and other assets by $923 million.

Another problem is how Countrywide pays Mr. Mozilo, 68, and one of the company’s two founders. Though he is considered a pioneer in the mortgage business, he has become a target for shareholder activists as more attention has focused on executive pay in general and on the lucrative rewards reaped by mortgage executives in particular during the housing boom.

On the conference call yesterday, one investor asked Mr. Mozilo how he could justify selling stock while Countrywide was buying shares, which have fallen.

In the last five years, Mr. Mozilo has exercised options and sold shares for a profit of nearly $380 million, according to data compiled by Thomson Financial. Starting last fall, Mr. Mozilo significantly increased the number of shares he was selling on a regular basis for profits of more than $130 million.

“The decision to buy back stock is a collective decision that emanates from the financial operation of the company and is based on what is in the best interests for the shareholders,” he said, noting that he has all the shares he received when he started the company nearly 40 years ago. “It’s totally unrelated to the issue of my sale of stocks.”

Julie Creswell contributed reporting.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Harlem Mainstay Survived Riots, but Falls to Renewal

Harlem Mainstay Survived Riots, but Falls to Renewal

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Calvin Copeland, 82, is closing his restaurant, Copeland’s, known for its Southern fare and gospel brunch.

Published: July 23, 2007

Calvin Copeland was there when rioters burned and looted stores in 1964, when crack cocaine and AIDS tore families apart, when brownstones were for sale for $50,000 and few outsiders dared move in. He endured fire and financial ruin, yet each time he picked up the pieces and prospered, as bold and resilient as the neighborhood around him.

If he could be the master of his fate, he would live out his days in Harlem, Mr. Copeland, 82, said yesterday, serving soul food from the restaurant he has owned for almost five decades, Copeland’s, a relic of the past anchored in a place fast in transition.

Gentrification has pushed away many of the black families who used to patronize his business. “The white people who took their place don’t like or don’t care for the food I cook,” he said. “The transformation snuck up on me like a tornado.”

After falling behind on rent and bills a year ago, Mr. Copeland tried to hold on to his business, investing more than $250,000 of his savings, he said. Finally, in May, he acquiesced to defeat.

Copeland’s, at 547 West 145th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, where Harlem is known as Hamilton Heights, will hold its last gospel brunch at 1 p.m. on Sunday and then close its doors for good.

“I just can’t do it anymore,” Mr. Copeland said.

With its smoke-mirrored walls, L-shaped marble bar and carpet the color of honey, Copeland’s is at once cozy and démodé, a place where men in polyester suits and women in hats dine alongside European tourists who come to Harlem to experience American black culture.

Yesterday, Fred Staton, 92, a saxophonist with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, which plays on Sundays at the restaurant, stopped by to wish Mr. Copeland well. A tour group from the Netherlands had brunch there. Others, however, walked out after learning that the restaurant was not offering its usual Sunday gospel choir. (Mr. Copeland said he was too busy preparing for the final brunch to schedule entertainment.)

“The food here is delicious, and it’s so sad to hear they’ll be gone,” said Martha Marsh, who has lived in Harlem for 40 years and said she regularly eats at Copeland’s.

“She’s picky,” added her husband, John Henry. “If she says she enjoys it, it’s because the food is really good.”

Mr. Copeland started the business in 1958 as a catering service, one of Harlem’s first, in a modest storefront on Broadway north of 148th Street. He had but one worker, Gertrude Clark, who still works for him. Mr. Copeland, who is black, baked and decorated cakes; Ms. Clark, who is white and grew up on a farm in upstate New York, did whatever else was needed, which often included preparing Southern fare.

“I had never eaten collard greens in my life, and there I was making fried chicken and souse meat,” said Ms. Clark, 73. She is now Copeland’s banquet manager.

Mr. Copeland eventually rented the store next door, opened up a hole in the wall, expanded the kitchen and started serving breakfast and lunch, cafeteria style. It was similar to the one in operation today next to the restaurant on 145th Street, which opened for business in 1980.

In 1981, the restaurant burned to the ground and the insurance company went bankrupt before it reimbursed Mr. Copeland for the losses.

“I lost everything, except for the liquor,” he said with a chuckle. “We had it in a separate room with concrete walls, and I guess the fire couldn’t get through.”

At the time, banks were not prone to lending money to restaurant owners, especially if the restaurant was in a place as volatile as Harlem, which had had two riots prior to the one in 1964, incited by the fatal shooting of a black teenage boy by a white police officer. But Mr. Copeland had many friends, and one of them helped get him approved for a small loan. The rest of the money came from Ms. Clark, who mortgaged an upstate property to help her boss.

“If that thing didn’t go, she would have lost her property, she would have lost her job, she would have lost everything of value she had,” Mr. Copeland said. “She had a lot of faith in me, and I delivered.”

Copeland’s became a destination for black families from as far as Philadelphia. Black entertainers and other notables would stop by when in town. Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop, ate there once, and so did Muhammad Ali and the comedian Richard Pryor, who threw money in the air when he left the restaurant so as to distract the crowd that had surrounded him, Mr. Copeland said. Natalie Cole is a regular. Michael Jackson came by once, but did not come in; one of the waiters took a plate of food to his vehicle, which was parked outside.

“I never paid attention to this stuff,” Mr. Copeland said. “I was too busy cooking.”

Born in Smithfield, Va., Mr. Copeland started working at age 13, washing dishes at a Greek restaurant in Newport News, Va., where his family lived at the time. He moved on to shuck oysters and prepare shellfish cocktails, but in his spare time, he watched the chefs at work.
Soon, he was helping make breakfast: sausage, home fries, eggs and grits.

Mr. Copeland moved to New York in 1945, and was married within five years. His wife, Rita Copeland, an Irish immigrant, was a waitress and he was a cook at a restaurant in Paramus, N.J.
They kept the relationship a secret at first; at a time of racial segregation, they were convinced that they would lose their jobs if the boss found out they were together.

Mrs. Copeland, 88, has Alzheimer’s disease, and Mr. Copeland devotes his afternoons to her, feeding her and brushing her hair while he tells her the day’s news, even though she cannot respond. He hired two nurse’s aides to watch over her night and day at their home in Hamilton Heights.

Mr. Copeland said he would be able to devote more time to his wife once the restaurant is closed, but he is not thinking about retirement.

“I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I’ve got a plan in my head, but I don’t want to reveal it yet. All I can tell you is that I’ve got to have something going. I have to or I may as well not be here anymore. To me, idleness is worse than death.”

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Bracing for the Lion

The City

Bracing for the Lion

Willie Davis for The New York Times
Few pockets of the neighborhood will be unaffected by Columbia’s plan to transform 17 acres into a northern campus.

Published: July 22, 2007

Luisa Henriquez gazed softly from her living room window into the partly hollowed-out old factory across West 132nd Street.

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Willie Davis for The New York Times

LA-VERNA FOUNTAIN, Spokeswoman, Columbia University "It is a painful process. Part of the question for me is, what will this area be in the year 2030; what will this area be like 50 years from now?"

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Willie Davis for The New York Times

LUISA HENRIQUEZ, a second-generation Manhattanville resident "Columbia should work around us. They say everything is for the students. What about us?"

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Willie Davis for The New York Times

NICHOLAS SPRAYREGEN, President, Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage "They are
like the dumb horse in Central Park with the blinders on, self-imposed blinders. They can't do anything but move forward."

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Willie Davis for The New York Times

The construction workers who had been pounding away inside had left for the day, taking with them their gruff chatter and their clanging and banging. What remained for Ms. Henriquez, 54, were grainy memories of times past, when local folks toiled there for the Madame Alexander doll company before it transferred most of its work overseas.

Ms. Henriquez’s mother, who moved her family from the Dominican Republic to New York in 1966, was one of those workers. Back then, her mother’s voice unfurled from the windows of the burnt-orange factory like a sweet Dominican bachata, a salve of grocery lists, reminders and reprimands.

This new noise, brought on by the workers and their power tools, is no salve. It is a bugle sounded by the building’s owner, Columbia University, announcing a brand-new day in Manhattanville, a day that Ms. Henriquez says is a direct threat to her dreams. The university has been readying the location for some of its administrative staff, and neighbors say the noise is just one more signal that the school is pushing forward with its plan to use 17 acres of the neighborhood for a huge campus expansion.

“They want us out of here,” Ms. Henriquez said, her brown eyes moistening as she turned from the window. “They want it all.”

The expansion recently reached a milestone. Last month, after three years of work, Columbia completed the rezoning application that is a linchpin of the Manhattanville plan; the formal process of review will probably last till year’s end.

Columbia foresees a Manhattanville graced with grand educational institutions and infused with money and energy after many lackluster years. Some people, among them merchants who expect a boom in business, are eager for the change. But others in Manhattanville are unsure, and still others are strongly opposed, saying that the university is charging into Manhattanville just as the neighborhood begins to perk up, that they will be priced out of the revamped area and that other initiatives, like building affordable housing, are much more compelling.

Ms. Henriquez knows where she stands. “Columbia should work around us,” she said as she sat by the window that overlooks the factory. “They say everything is for the students, for the students. What about us?”

When Columbia officials look at Manhattanville’s ramshackle warehouses, garages and decaying factories, they see temples for teaching and research. Where car engines crank and roar from dozens of auto repair shops, the university envisions a new business school or a school of the arts.

Columbia, of course, expects to reap vast benefits for itself in this scene. The university says it offers only half the space per student that Harvard University does, and only a third of the space available at Princeton and Yale, and that the expansion will help it compete with those and other renowned educational institutions.

And the benefits will also spill over to others, the school argues. “Columbia wants to work on the kinds of issues that impact humanity, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” said La-Verna Fountain, a Columbia spokeswoman.

The project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2030, will also bring 6,000 jobs to Manhattanville and 1,200 construction jobs a year for two decades, according to Ms. Fountain. (Columbia already owns or controls more than two-thirds of its proposed 17-acre footprint, and to acquire the remaining land, it is negotiating with owners individually and, in the case of commercial spaces, may seek to acquire them through eminent domain if negotiations fail.)

Many businesses and residents, like Ms. Henriquez, would be relocated under the plan. But Columbia says they will be placed in situations equal to or better than the ones they leave.

Moreover, in a stroll through the neighborhood, Ms. Fountain pointed out certain structures that date from the area’s manufacturing heyday, like a 1927 Art Deco building on Broadway and 133rd Street owned by the Nash car company, that sit within the project footprint but will be reused rather than torn down.

“It is a painful process,” Ms. Fountain said of the expansion as she trekked through the dank valley of warehouses and auto shops between 12th Avenue and Broadway. “Part of the question for me is, what will this area be in the year 2030; what will this area be like 50 years from now?

“Sometimes we forget the bad parts. I think we always love the good old days; of course we do. But I think if we want to get ready for the future, we have to work together to create the bright new days.”

Manhattanville, bounded by the Hudson River on the west and St. Nicholas Avenue on the east, and running from about 123rd Street north to about 135th Street, is a poor- to-working-class neighborhood. The feel of the area is industrial and mechanical. The neighborhood sits under the colossal structure of the Riverside Drive viaduct, a steel backbone that hovers above 12th Avenue.

From most points in the neighborhood you can hear the menacing sounds of the No. 1 train, grumbling as it charges to and from 125th Street. That station’s elevators are frequently broken, so riders often trudge up and down its steep steps, like worker ants from a gritty colony.

Water is another hallmark of Manhattanville. Vicky Gholson, born and raised nearby, said it has always been the waterfront that has drawn people to the area, especially country folk with ties to the South.

“These days people know Manhattanville mostly for the housing projects,” said Ms. Gholson, an educator and member of Community Board 9. “But I know that place. I remember how the guys used to go fishing on the river. How as kids we would go down there and look across the river to New Jersey to see all the bright lights in Palisades Park. Even if we couldn’t go to that park, as a child you could fantasize.”

Despite Columbia’s long interest in Manhattanville, the neighborhood has had a generally low profile in the city, perhaps because of its industrial nature. But its history is long and textured.

For hundreds of years, the water that would draw Ms. Gholson and her friends was what attracted the American Indians who inhabited the area. They had carved out trade routes and trails — much of what we know today as 125th Street, Broadway and Old Broadway — and the future Manhattanville was ideal for them because of its direct access to the Hudson.

In 1806 the industrialist Jacob Schieffelin and a handful of mostly Quaker merchants established an official village in Manhattanville. Schieffelin is still an organic part of the neighborhood, buried under the front porch of the rectory of St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church, on 126th Street near Old Broadway. The rectory and the church look much as they did 100 years ago, but the congregation, like the local population, is mostly black and Hispanic, and the liturgy includes a Friday service known as the Hip-Hop(e) Mass.

In 1850 the Hudson River Railroad was extended to Manhattanville, making it the first northbound stop out of the city. Over the next several decades, the rail line, the waterfront, and the boom in industry drew to the area not only the city’s wealthy and enterprising, but also its roughnecks and dockworkers.

The Great Depression paralyzed the area, however, and in the 1940s and ’50s, Robert Moses took aim at the neighborhood for what was known as “slum clearance” — tearing down tenements to make room for moderate-income housing projects. The area had long been home to a mix of races and religions, but whites fled, and the Moses projects, Manhattanville Houses and Grant Houses, became largely minority.

In 1968, local tensions exploded when Columbia proposed building a gym in nearby Morningside Park. The dispute involved issues of race, class and town-gown relations; for example, a plan to have separate entrances and separate facilities for students and the public struck some as little more than Jim Crow segregation. Columbia students and concerned residents clashed with the university and the police, at times violently.
The gymnasium was never built, but as Ms. Fountain, the university spokeswoman, suggests, its shadow hangs over Columbia’s current plan.

“I think that’s a huge battle for us to overcome,” she said. “I can tell you that almost any discussion that I have with a reporter, every discussion I have with the community or with a student, it always points back to 1968.”

On a recent afternoon, Nicholas Sprayregen, president of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, sat in his office at Broadway near 131st Street, stewing over the university’s desire to take over his building. His father started the business in 1980, when the neighborhood was at its worst. Today, Tuck-It-Away has five locations in Manhattanville, most of which stand in the way of the university’s plan.

Mr. Sprayregen, who is white, likened the expansion to a form of “ethnic cleansing,” an attempt to rid the area of poor minorities to make way for a more affluent crowd. He said he is willing to fight the university at every turn, pointed out that his family business has been in the community for nearly 30 years, and said he plans on being around for another 30.

“Most of us are not against the university expanding; I welcome that, but they have this all-or-nothing attitude,” he said, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis. “They are like the dumb horse in Central Park with the blinders on, self-imposed blinders. They can’t do anything but move forward like a battering ram.”

Managers of other businesses nestled in or near the footprint are not so critical, among them John Stage, the owner of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a two-year-old rib joint about a block west of Tuck-It-Away, on 131st Street.

“Columbia owns this building, so I’m between a rock and a hard place,” Mr. Stage said the other day as he sat at a table in the back and watched the staff hustle past with plates of brisket, ribs and chicken wings. “But Columbia has been very fair to me, and it has been a good customer, too.”

Mr. Stage said he started coming around the neighborhood about five years ago, when the area was still pretty “raw.” He has a 15-year lease with the university, and as is the case with other businesses, Columbia has promised to relocate him if it decides it needs the space.

“I have no fear,” Mr. Stage said. “I’m not going to worry at all. Business is very good right now.”

Evelyn Dominguez, who the other day could be found standing behind the counter of VNV Optical International and studying prescriptions from behind her mahogany Armani frames, is positively ecstatic about the plan.

“I think it will be really good for business,” said Ms. Dominguez, whose store is on Broadway, near 126th Street. “And any improvements to the area would be great. You know, so it won’t be so ghetto around here.”

At 125th Street and Riverside Drive, two pet chickens named Melissa and Tumba played peck or be pecked outside their home, the 125th Street Tire Corporation. The chickens flopped about with no regard for motor or man, just for their little games.

Nearby, on Old Broadway, a barrel-chested 42-year-old named Mustafa handed a man a few dollars to wash his car and mused upon the bad old days, when a stretch of Amsterdam Avenue was so drug-infested it was known as Cracksterdam.

According to him, the police have pressed hard on local drug dealers and the projects are kept much cleaner, and the grass is greener, than he can remember.

“But it is what it is,” he said, tossing a dirty rag to the guy who was scrubbing his vehicle. “This is still Cracksterdam, and we still call this Murderville.”

Local teenagers say that gangs control the projects, he added, with Grant Houses run by the Crips, and Manhattanville Houses by the Bloods.

Still, with crime much lower than it has been, outsiders now feel safe enough to move in. “They were scared of us before,” Mustafa said. “But now everybody wants a piece. You even see white people jogging through the projects now.”

He was joking a bit, but was deadly serious about one thing — the fear residents have of being kicked out of the only neighborhood many of them have ever known. Some have even sold their homes and left town, he said, especially the older folks, with many headed back down South.

In the middle of Manhattanville Houses, boys from Intermediate School 286, the Renaissance Military and Leadership Academy, gathered on a concrete field to play baseball. They’re an upstart team of middle school boys, without an official team name or fancy uniforms, but on this mild afternoon, mothers and sisters and other schoolchildren had filled the worn blue benches to watch the action.

Andrew Jarboe, one of the coaches and a teacher at the school, essentially agreed. “This is a neighborhood that has emerged from the crack epidemic of the ’90s; it pulled itself up from the ground,” Mr. Jarboe said as he kept his eye on a few of his more rambunctious players. “An institution like Columbia could do a lot of good here, especially for kids this age. But if the property gets gobbled up and people with more money start moving in, nobody around here will be able to afford anything.”

Mr. Jarboe remembers waiting at a nearby bus stop not long ago and striking up a conversation with two local women. As a double-decker tour bus pulled around the corner, he recalled, both women expressed the same sense of foreboding.

“They were just looking down at Harlem,” Mr. Jarboe said, “and one of the ladies says to me, ‘You know what they’re doing, right?’ I said uh, not really. She says to me, ‘They’re shopping for property.’ ”


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Judge Stops Newark Redevelopment Project

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NEW YORK REGION July 20, 2007
Judge Stops Newark Redevelopment Project By ANDREW JACOBS A judge ruled that the city’s decision to condemn 14 acres of property on behalf of a private developer was ill-conceived and wrong.

Judge Stops Newark Redevelopment Project

Published: July 20, 2007

A New Jersey judge effectively killed an ambitious downtown redevelopment project in Newark yesterday, ruling that the city’s decision to condemn 14 acres of property on behalf of a private developer was ill-conceived and wrong. The project, the Mulberry Street Redevelopment Project, a proposed collection of 2,000 market-rate apartments and stores in the shadow of the city’s new hockey arena, would have been the largest development initiative here in decades.

In her decision, Judge Marie P. Simonelli of Superior Court said the administration of Mayor Sharpe James misused the state’s rules on condemnation when it declared 62 parcels “an area in need of redevelopment.” She said the row houses, mechanics’ shops and parking lots, while somewhat tattered, were not “blighted” and suggested that the decision to condemn the property was politically motivated.

In her decision, Judge Simonelli mentioned the close links between the developers and the James administration, adding that large contributions had been made to the former mayor and the Municipal Council, whose approval was needed for the area’s condemnation.

The decision comes after a landmark State Supreme Court ruling last month that restricted the ability of towns and cities to use eminent domain as a way to seize property they deem could be put to better use. “It clearly shows that the teaching of the Supreme Court is having an effect,” said Ronald Chen, the New Jersey public advocate. “If they want to declare land blighted, municipalities are just going to have to work a little bit harder to make their case.”

In her decision, Judge Simonelli cited documents from 2002 in which the developers essentially dictated the terms and scope of the project, including tax incentives. She observed that there was evidence that the project was “a done deal, a fait accompli, before the required statutory redevelopment process began.”

John H. Buonocore, a lawyer for the residents and business owners facing eviction, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision, which contradicted the city’s contention that the neighborhood was beyond repair. “The court, to the contrary, found that the Mulberry Street area is structurally sound, fully occupied, tax generating and well-maintained,” he said. “We’re delighted that the court saw through this prearranged land grab on behalf of politically favored developers.”

Bruce J. Wishnia, one of the principals behind the $550 million project, criticized the decision, saying, “If it is not reversed, it will effectively shut the door on urban redevelopment in New Jersey.” He declined to answer questions about allegations that the company’s connections and contributions to City Hall were factors in the company’s selection as the area’s sole developer.

Although they blame Mr. James for condemning their neighborhood in the first place, residents and merchants said they were disappointed that Mayor Cory A. Booker upheld the city’s use of eminent domain, despite having promised during his campaign that he would not. Mr. Booker was on vacation yesterday and city officials declined to comment, saying they were studying the decision and had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

George Mytrowitz, whose auto body shop would have been torn down for the project, said he was relieved by the ruling. “Now I can get on with my life and not spend every waking moment worrying where I’m going to be tomorrow,” said Mr. Mytrowitz, whose great-grandfather started the business in 1913 as a blacksmith shop. “I have the best location in Newark, and I’m glad I’m going to stay here.”


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Storage Mogul Is an Obstacle to Columbia's Expansion Land Use

Storage Mogul Is an Obstacle to Columbia's Expansion
Land Use
Special to the Sun
July 19, 2007
The most formidable obstacle to Columbia University's 17-acre expansion may not be those who live within the West Harlem project's footprint, but an Upper East Side-based storage mogul.

The largest private landowner within the area targeted for the expansion, Nicholas Sprayregen, a developer, landlord, weekly newspaper publisher, and owner of Tuck-It-Away self-storage, has spent $500,000 so far on attorneys, a lobbyist, and land-use consultants in an attempt to compel the university to scale back its proposal.

A fierce opponent of Columbia's proposed use of eminent domain, the lively father of four has money to spend and is emerging as a critical force in the West Harlem community's opposition to the university's plan.

The expansion would create a campus of research, academic, and graduate housing buildings north of 125th Street, a $6 billion to $7 billion project that would be completed over the next 20-plus years. Columbia, which the has backing of Mayor Dinkins, among others, contends that it needs the new facilities to compete with similar universities, and that the new buildings would enliven the neighborhood.
The proposal is currently one month into the city's seven-month public approval process, giving opponents a six-month window in which to push for any major changes to the plan.

Mr. Sprayregen, 44, is hardly sitting back: He is engaged in a legal battle with the state for failure to disclose documents, and he and his legal team are crafting another lawsuit to challenge the expected use of eminent domain. Soon, he said, he will unveil an alternative plan for Columbia that would include "affordable" housing and not involve private land takings.

The heir of a self-storage business founded by his father in 1980, Mr. Sprayregen lives on the Upper East Side and runs his company out of a windowless office filled with thousands of pages of city and state documents on the plan. The former marathon runner spends hours each day sifting through eminent domain lawsuits from around the country and studying government documents on the plan.

"From the very beginning, he was very energetic, asking 74 questions a minute," his attorney, Norman Siegel, said.

Mr. Siegel said he receives lengthy, exhaustive memos from Mr. Sprayregen written in well-crafted legal language, in addition to a barrage of e-mails. "This morning the e-mail was at 4:45," Mr. Siegel said.

The owner of 18 storage, residential, and commercial buildings around the New York metropolitan area, Mr. Sprayregen is hardly without self-interest. If Columbia moves forward with a revised expansion plan that does not use eminent domain, as Mr. Sprayregen is urging, the value of his five properties in the footprint will undoubtedly skyrocket, allowing for uses far more lucrative than storage.

Mr. Sprayregen acknowledges the potential for financial gain but said his pique is with the concept of a private university taking his property for its own gain.

"Why is it that my property has to be condemned for another private entity?" he said. "Maybe if Columbia wants to come enter into a private 99-year lease and I'll build them a research laboratory. There's no reason why they have to own this in order to do this research."

But the university is planning to create a cohesive campus itself, and it says that if private buildings are allowed to stay within the area, the university's plans for infrastructure, open space, and a general functionality of the complex will suffer.

"These academic research buildings are buildings which we need to build to university specifications," an executive vice president at Columbia, Robert Kasdin, said. "We need to operate to university specifications, and the existing footprints of the private properties don't fit these academic research needs."

Mr. Kasdin said Columbia is still open to alterations in the plan, though he said ruling out eminent domain is not likely.

Project opponents said Mr. Sprayregen's willingness to spend his financial resources helps bring attention to their cause, adding what they say is much-needed pressure on the university. Local elected officials have not been vocal enough in their opposition, opponents say, which allows the community resistance to go relatively unseen citywide. "The nature of media coverage is such that elected officials tend to get a little bit more attention than a community board," an organizer with the Coalition to Preserve Community, Tom DeMott, said. But even if Mr. Sprayregen spends millions, Mr. DeMott said, "we're not exactly talking about an equal playing field here."

Tony Avella with Theodore Hamm

July/August 2007

Tony Avella with Theodore Hamm
by Theodore Hamm

A Ground-Level View of the City

Tony Avella speaks at a City Hall rally on June 27 against
the use of eminent domain to benefit private development.
Photo by Jonathan Barke.

Democrat Tony Avella, a City Councilman representing Northeast Queens, is running for mayor in 2009. Prior to joining the council in 2001, Avella had a long track record as a neighborhood activist as well as community board member in Bayside. In recent years, Avella, along with Tish James and Charles Barron, has been one of the few City Council members to speak out against over-development. Among other issues, Avella has challenged the Bloomberg administration on the closing of firehouses, the developer-friendly rezoning of areas including Williamsburg-Greenpoint, and the proposed use of eminent domain to benefit private development in many areas of the city. In mid-June, Rail editor Theodore Hamm sat down with Avella at City Hall Park.

Rail: Do you think that the City Council is currently acting as a rubber-stamp body for Mayor Bloomberg and his big development projects?

Avella: Yes, unfortunately, it really is a rubber stamp for the mayor. Let me give you a current example. At the hearing I just attended on the proposed use of eminent domain at Willets Point, the Bloomberg administration was represented by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Only a few council members expressed concern for the many local businesses that will be condemned by eminent domain. Most of my colleagues seemed to overlook the fact that the EDC has a terrible track record in dealing with local communities. Hearing them talk, you’d think there’s nothing wrong with the EDC and that it’s doing a great job.
Rail: What do you think other council members are afraid of?

Avella: A few things: one, the real estate industry controls the agenda in the city. Not me as an elected official, not my colleagues—it’s the real estate industry because they give a lot of money to local politicians. The other aspect of it is that there’s very little independence in the council because of the power of the speaker [currently Christine Quinn]. If you go against the speaker, there are ways that she can get back at you. Many members, even though they don’t want to vote for a certain bill, get intimidated, knowing that there’ll be repercussions or retaliations further down the line. For example, in 2002, when I voted against the property tax increase, the mayor refused to renew my parking permit. The speaker [then Gifford Miller] bounced me off the Rules, Privileges and Elections Committee. But to me it’s more important to represent your constituents. I think that if more council members and elected officials do the right thing, the less opportunity there is for the speaker or the mayor to intimidate you.

Rail: Tell us about the public campaign finance bill you’re proposing. Is it aimed at curbing the influence of real estate developers in city politics?

Avella: I’m in the process of putting the final touches on the bill to reform the whole campaign finance system. Right now, we do have the best public funding for elections in the nation, with 4-1 matching funds. The problem, though, is that the current system still allows for way too much influence from the real estate industry. In my bill, we’ll create a total public financing program, in which everyone who gets enough signatures will get equal funding, with different amounts for different offices. If we do this, then elected officials won’t have to worry how they vote. We wouldn’t have to go to the real estate industry for donations, for example. It would take effect in 2010, after this next election cycle.

Rail: You’re often described as a “maverick” among the city council. Do you think that term applies?

Avella: I guess it does in the traditional sense of maverick. I think of myself as an independent person. I never thought that way of myself, but after having spent four or five years in the city council I almost consider myself a revolutionary because it’s just amazing that there’s no independent thought here. People don’t vote for things because it’s the right thing to do. They vote because that’s the way they’re told to vote—or maybe they’ll get ahead politically, or maybe they’re looking for the next job. There’s very little that happens in city government because people do the right thing and not the politically correct thing.

Rail: Speaking of political correctness, what about your recent vote in favor of allowing Bed-Stuy to name a street after Sonny Carson? You were the only white councilperson to support it.

Avella: For me, it was actually a bigger issue than just about Carson. There’s a process for street names: the community board reviews it, has a public hearing, and they vote, and then it’s up to the respective council members to introduce the name as part of a larger street-renaming bill.
That’s basically it. I think there were 59 streets renamed in the same bill as Carson. I dare any council member to name even ten of them. Then, Speaker Quinn suddenly decided to pull Carson’s name out of that bill and to make it a separate vote. To me that was subverting the whole process, because the local community did everything correctly. The second aspect of it is, who am I to tell the black community who they can and cannot honor? Street names are a very local issue. The community should have the right to say that “We think this person did a lot in our neighborhood and we want this street renamed.” So I voted not only to protect the process but to basically say that local communities have the right to determine who they want to honor.

Rail: Even so, it was still a bit unlikely for someone representing your district to vote for a radical black nationalist like Carson, yes?

Avella: I think that’s a correct assumption. I mean, my district is 80 percent white. But in fact, I only got a small number of complaints. And I think that’s a tribute to my district.
Rail: If you were elected mayor, how would you counteract the overdevelopment seen in many neighborhoods during the Bloomberg years?

Avella: Well, first of all, we’ve got to do a comprehensive re-do rezoning in the city of New York. We need to make sure that we accurately reflect the residential character of the neighborhoods. At the same time, we need to work with neighborhoods and communities to see where development can go. We need to eliminate all of the illegal construction and put some real teeth into the problem of the Department of Buildings. That agency is in total chaos. I mean, if you are a homeowner and you do the simplest little thing wrong, they’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks—but developers get away with anything. We also need to take control of the little-known, quasi-judicial agency called the Board of Standards and Appeals, which is made up of five commissioners appointed by the mayor who really have almost total power, but there’s no oversight of that agency whatsoever,
Rail: And no one really knows what they do.

Avella: Exactly. No one knows what they do, but they give the variances that allow the developers to obviate any part of the zoning codes. It is amazing to me that they’re supposed to have five criteria by which they approve of a variance, but they really can do whatever they want. For example, a developer buys a piece of property and goes to the Board of Standards and Appeals. He’ll tell them, “I can’t build a 12-story building on it because the zoning’s different” or “I paid too much money for it and the only way I can make it back is to build a 12-story building.” And they’ll give him the variance. It’s insane. In addition to changing this process, my other main plan regarding development is to go out in every neighborhood and do comprehensive planning. In every neighborhood, community leaders will get together and determine what’s wrong or what’s right with their neighborhood now, what needs to be done, and where they’d like to see their community five, ten years down the line. Those plans would get put together into borough-wide documents, which would be compiled into a city-wide document that becomes the planning blueprint for the city.

Rail: That sounds like the community board plans, or 421As, except that those are non-binding.
Avella: Right, in the process that I’m outlining, the community plans become the city’s plan. What we’re going to do is come up with a whole new way of planning—instead of doing it from the top-down, we’ll do it from the bottom-up.

Rail: Do you think that running for mayor as a sensible development candidate can be a winning strategy? The developers will fight you every step of the way.

Avella: I think it can be. I’m a common sense type of person, and I’m also a good government person. Not only do we need to restructure how we do planning, we also need to restructure government so that it pays more attention to the individual needs of all New Yorkers. We have to clean up city government and make it more ethical. If I can get that message out, I think there is hope. If you ask the average New Yorker whether he or she thinks the city’s going in the right direction, they’ll probably say yes. But then ask them what their personal experience has been in dealing with city agencies in their neighborhood and you’re going to get a totally different perspective. I hear it all the time: “I called 311, I can’t get a pothole fixed,” “I called my local precinct, they don’t respond,” “I couldn’t go to my local library until we finally got six days a week service.” People are not getting the services they ask for and I think that’s the basis of a campaign that can be won.

Rail: So in a sense, you’re running a different sort of quality of life campaign.

Avella: Yes, it really is a quality of life matter. I don’t understand why we can’t be a city that takes care of its own citizens and listens. I think that’s one of the faults that government has. We don’t listen. We tell people what we think is in their best interest. That’s the reverse of what it should be. We should be listening to city residents and doing what they want. I’m a neighborhood guy with a long background as a civic activist. We’ve had a mayor who is a billionaire businessman, and we’ve had career politicians—why not try a civic activist?