Volume 17, Number 47 | April 15 — 21, 2005

West St. money debate begins

By Josh Rogers

Gov. George Pataki’s decision last week not to build a tunnel under West St. throws nearly $700 million back in the Downtown rebuilding money pot and opens a new debate on how best to spend it.

“It frees up a lot of money,” said Roland Betts, board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is planning out how to spend its remaining $750 million of Community Development Block Grant money. Betts said a good chunk of the money saved for the $900 million tunnel should go to the expensive infrastructure system needed to be built under the World Trade Center site. “The site is number one.”

Pataki said Thursday he agreed, and that building a memorial is the top priority. He told Downtown Express he wants to be sure there’s enough money to pay for “the infrastructure to support the memorial and the office towers.”

Leftover money should go to help build a rail link between J.F.K. Airport, the Long Island Rail Road and Downtown, the governor added. When asked if he expected that any more money might go to affordable housing as has been suggested by some advocacy groups, Pataki repeated that the W.T.C. and the rail link were the top priorities.

The L.M.D.C. did indicate it would set aside $50 million for affordable housing in 2003. Originally it was going to be built in Site 5B in Tribeca, but when plans there changed last September, Dep. Mayor Daniel Doctoroff said the $50 million could be used to preserve more affordable units than the 300 apartments that were slated to be built at Site 5B. Shaun Donovan, the city’s commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development, told Downtown Express this week that the city’s new $50 million L.M.D.C. housing plan is still several months from being released.

As for the tunnel money, Carl Weisbrod, another L.M.D.C. member and president of the Downtown Alliance, said most of it should go to the rail link and he has yet to see a reason that it should be shifted to the site.

“My hope is the World Trade Center could support itself,” Weisbrod said in a telephone interview. He did say rebuilding the site is a top priority and he could see supporting at least some tunnel money for that, too.

The current cost estimate for the link is $6 billion and business leaders like Weisbrod have argued it is a small investment to make in return for the jobs and development it will create Downtown. Community Board 1 also passed a resolution last year calling on a shift of the tunnel money to the rail project.

The tunnel decision came the same week the L.M.D.C. released guidelines to its approach to spending the rest of the money. Agency critics objected because the report said the L.M.D.C. board would “generally exclude projects from eligibility” that covered operational funds for any program. Many of these advocates have called for money to run job training programs.

Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York, an advocacy group that monitors public spending projects, said she was “continually disappointed about the lack of affordable housing and jobs” in the Downtown plans.

Kevin Rampe, L.M.D.C. president, said the guidelines are “not set forth in absolutist terms,” and that the public can summit comments on the guidelines or attend a public hearing on the subject, April 27 at 6 p.m. at One Bowling Green. He said no money would go “exclusively” to private office infrastructure, and that this underground money would also be used for the memorial and W.T.C. cultural center.

John Whitehead, L.M.D.C. chairperson, said the rail link is important and he is encouraged that they are close to getting half the money needed. President Bush supports transferring $2 billion of unused 9/11 related tax breaks to the link and officials are hopeful that they will be able to convince Congress to back Bush on the transfer. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the W.T.C. site, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have agreed to commit close to $1 billion for the link.

With the tunnel money available, many inside and outside the L.M.D.C. are confident the agency’s community development money will not go to the link.

The West St. tunnel was intended to make crossing the highway separating the W.T.C. from Battery Park City safer, but critics knocked it either because of the cost or because they said it would make the areas near the entrance ramps more unsafe.

Pataki said he liked the tunnel plans when he first saw them, but after the State Transportation Dept. did detailed engineering studies and after listening to community opposition he decided not to go forward. Goldman Sachs had been planning to build its headquarters nearby, but reportedly pulled out of the deal because the firm did not want tunnel ramps near its front door.

Pataki said he was hopeful Goldman would decide to build on the Battery Park City site. “I know they are going to stay in New York,” he said “I hope they will locate in Lower Manhattan.”

Weisbrod of the Downtown Alliance said the chances to attract Goldman back to B.P.C. are better now that the tunnel idea has been buried.

John Dellaportas, a Battery Park City resident who formed the Save West Street Coalition to fight the tunnel in 2002, said he was trilled at the “complete victory.” He said he and his members expect the Dept. of Transportation’s plan to improve the roadway will make it safer and will pay close attention to plans as they are refined. In order to reopen the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in 2002, D.O.T. built a temporary roadway on West St. near the W.T.C. site. The agency expects to spend about $200 million on a safer, permanent roadway, which is why all of the tunnel money can’t be shifted to other projects.

The decision means changes for the West Street Coalition, which quickly became an active force Downtown with members sending out thousands of e-mails to politicians, planners and newspapers.

In a victory e-mail sent to his list, Dellaportas promised Pataki’s decision will mean “much less spam in your in-box–at least from us!”


Josh@DowntownExpress.com

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