BIP In the News

Yassky’s Bargain: A Departing Councilman in Search of a Quo for His Quid by Katharine Jose for the New York Observer November 23, 2009

Though he has only a few weeks left in office, City Councilman David Yassky has lost none of his enthusiasm. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he parked a blue minivan on Kent Street in Williamsburg and bounded out, wearing a black suit and a black tie with green flowers, and no coat, although it was cold and damp and the suit jacket flapped in the unyielding wind.

Yassky, joined by his community liaison Rami Metal, was facing several rows of dusty trucks, a wide expanse of Astroturf and the East River. We were there to look, four years after the fact, at what had become of the parks the city promised Yassky in exchange for a sweeping 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront.

“This happens every year at the end of the term,” said Yassky, 45, a boyish, emotionally transparent policy wonk who has represented his Brooklyn district since 2001. “There are things they really want to get done.”

“They” in this context is the city government: the mayor’s office, the planning department, the parks department.  That rezoning bore dozens of condominium projects in a feverish real estate market, but they have not, so far, produced any of the three parks that were part of the agreement.

The almost-park, called Bushwick Inlet Park, is far from completed, but it is happening. Asked how hard it was to get it to this state of readiness, Yassky said, “It was murder. It was a nightmare.”

The Astroturf was very green and slippery, like a field made out of plastic leis. It didn’t seem ideal for any use, though Yassky told me the city parks department has been using it for years, because real grass is hard to maintain and gets muddy.

“The original plan for Bushwick Inlet Park was starting at North 9th, going through to the inlet,” Yassky said. “If you go back to 2005 when Amanda Burden and Dan Doctoroff would come present the vision for the Brooklyn waterfront.”

As sometimes happens, “the vision” has materialized more for the private sector than the public.

It’s true that the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint are being transformed by condominium buildings. But what’s less obvious is that the people who tend to mind the most–the ones who scrawl “condoburg” on the stairs leading up from the Bedford Avenue subway stop–are statistically likely to move away within a few years. The longtime residents of the neighborhood, the ones who have spent a lifetime cut off from the tantalizingly proximate water, are more likely to be interested in the prospect of thirty acres of waterfront park than they are in whether or not a building turns up nearby.

In this sense, for Mr. Yassky–who compiled a progressive record as an aide to Charles Schumer and then as a council member; who won the wholehearted endorsement of The New York Times before losing, possibly in elective-political-career-ending fashion, to John Liu in his bid for comptroller–his public legacy hangs on what happens to these spaces.

The rezoning has very conspicuously changed the neighborhood, and since the real estate market is not what it was, the condo buildings have come to represent something other than progress. Greenpoint and Williamsburg have, according to the Daily News, 80 stalled construction sites. Some streets are, for blocks, lined with plywood fences hiding empty lots.

Just north of the Astroturf field is a large grey and blue warehouse owned by a company called City Storage, which houses documents for law firms and the courts and the city and other organizations. That warehouse has been there awhile. The warehouse just north of it, similar but much larger, was built within the last three or four years, after the plan for the park was public.

“[The owner’s] story would be, you know, ‘I have a booming business and I can fill this up,’” Yassky said with a small sigh. “A skeptical person would say—well, and part of that would be–if the city was going to take this by eminent domain, which is what the original plan called for, then having the two buildings on it would let him argue that it was much more valuable and they had to pay him a lot more for it.”To make Bushwick Inlet Park the park it was meant to be, the city also needs to acquire the property to the north, owned by a heating-oil delivery company called Bayside Fuel. The city condemned the site in 2006, but a company named TGE already had the “option to buy” the site for the purpose of building a power plant. TGE argued that the site could not be condemned until the state denied the power-plant permit, which it eventually did, but not until last year. In the meantime it became clear that, as a place that once produced manufactured coal, the property would require extensive environmental remediation. That means, according to Metal, three to four years to study the problem, and maybe five to clean it up.

Before that happens, Bushwick Inlet Park will not actually reach Bushwick Inlet.

The second park that Yassky was promised, and the smallest, is where Greenpoint Avenue dead-ends at the East River. This is the WNYC Transmitter Park, a cramped piece of land about half the size of one one of the neighborhood’s blocks. The ground is covered in wood chips. There is a wooden walkway that leads to a platform with a wooden railing. It seems designed for wheelchairs. There is a fence along the far side that keeps visitors away from the water.

“It’s a work in progress,” Yassky said. “When I was elected there was a big transmitter tower somewhere around there. It was a big…like the Eiffel Tower. You know, 50 feet tall, it was a tall thing. And that’s what this was.”

It’s a third site that makes the councilman really mad. 65 Commercial Street is, as it was in 2005, a parking area for Access-a-Ride vehicles, a lot for emergency response vehicles and, at that moment, where Martin Scorsese’s new HBO series, “Boardwalk Empire,” was shooting. The city budget lists the development as a soccer field, but the site is still owned by the M.T.A.

I asked Yassky why the city thought this particular site would work.

“There are two possibilities,” he said. “They really didn’t intend to, they don’t really care, they just said it to shut me up. Like ‘OK yeah we’ll do this,’ and then–but it’s in writing, you know. They gave me a whole letter saying these are the three things we’re going to do.

“And the other possibility would be that, you know, they kind of meant it, but it’s hard. It is hard. It’s not undoably hard, it just takes some work.”

We stood looking at the chain link and the barbed wire and the gates and the pavement and Yassky said, “This one you should really write about. I mean this thing that they haven’t done–four years later–they said they would move this off and make this a park and it’s still here.”

There wasn’t much else to see and as we got back into the minivan, I asked Yassky about making deals with the city.

“Certainly one lesson,” he said. “One lesson of that is: whatever neighborhood improvements are supposed to go with a big development plan should be done up front–should be done before it’s passed. The commitment should be made enforceable in some way. And if not, then don’t bank on it.”

As we headed south on Franklin, Yassky told me there isn’t much he can do about the project now. “I mean, as of November 10, I’m passing the baton.”

I asked if his replacement, newly elected Steve Levin, would continue to push the city for the parks. “Absolutely,” Yassky said.

After a few seconds of silence, Yassky said, “In fact, we should get an actual baton.”

He turned to Rami. “Do we have one?”

They didn’t, Rami said.

A minute after we exchanged goodbyes on Wythe Avenue near N. 9th Street, Rami sprinted back and handed me a few sheets of paper–copies of letters from the 2005 rezoning. On April 28, 2005, in a letter about the Commercial Street site, the M.T.A. wrote to then-deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff to “confirm that the Metropolitan Transit Authority-New York City Transit would be willing to transfer the site to the City of New York for use as a publicly accessible open space within the context of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg rezoning.”

That is, “dependent upon the City therefore having identified, acquired and fitted out a suitable alternative site” and “the replacement or relocation all the unit’s facilities to the new locations.” This Emergency Response Unit, the letter warned, “is extremely location-sensitive” and “the City would also need to have provided a replacement site for the New York City Transit’s Department of Buses.” That site “must be of equivalent or greater value.”


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