Volume 17, Number 43 | March 18 - 24, 2005


Downtown Express photos by Ramin Talaie

Billionaires for Bush, a satirical group, performed at a community meeting on L.M.D.C. funding Wednesday night.

Debate over Downtown money

By Josh Rogers

How much Lower Manhattan Development Corporation money will be used for the World Trade Center memorial and cultural center and how much will be left for the rest of Downtown? There are no answers yet to either question and as a result, a report outlining the best uses for about $800 million in Downtown community money may be delayed a few weeks past Gov. George Pataki’s March 31 deadline.

Many of the advocates and civic groups that have been debating the best uses of the federal, post-9/11 money for a few years have been more concerned about an open process and may not be upset if the decisions are delayed a little.

“It’ll come together at some point,” said one L.M.D.C. board member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Right now it’s premature. All of the options have to be laid out. I think it will happen soon. It could be a week, it could be two weeks, it could be three. A year would not be soon.”

Lynn Rasic, a Pataki spokesperson, told Downtown Express Wednesday that the report may be released later than planned. “We can’t say with certainty it will be produced by the end of March,” she said. “We expect it to be in the early spring.”

At a board meeting last week, John Whitehead, L.M.D.C. chairperson and a Pataki appointee, said they were still planning to release a document at the end of the month, but in response to questions from reporters, he and Kevin Rampe, L.M.D.C. president, said it was still too early even to make decisions on what sort of list or document they would be working on, let alone deciding which projects would get funded.

Rampe did say the L.M.D.C. would do more to get public opinion on the recommendations than they have done with previous agency spending plans. He delivered the same message this week in a private meeting with some groups that have criticized the L.M.D.C. process.

Pataki and L.M.D.C. officials have said the first priority is money for the memorial, which will also be funded with private donations. Other projects including improvements to the East and Hudson River waterfronts, street and plaza improvements in Chinatown, near lower Greenwich St. and along Fulton St. are considered higher-priority items off the site. Affordable housing and job training programs are favored by many community groups, which are stepping up their lobbying efforts.

Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York said she wanted to be hopeful the agency “will put forth a plan that would bridge the gap between New Yorkers and the L.M.D.C. board,” but added she thought it may be “wishful thinking.”

Damiani was planning to attend a Wednesday night forum on the Lower East Side calling on the development corporation to change its priorities. The “Without a Trace” forum, sponsored by several organizations, also drew Billionaires for Bush, an anti-Republican satirical group and Councilmember Alan Gerson.

Gerson, in a telephone interview, said he thought he would be able to schedule a meeting with the L.M.D.C. prior to the recommendation report. Last fall, he delivered his own report to the L.M.D.C. detailing recommendations for the remaining money including $200 million to preserve and build affordable housing, $270 million for waterfront improvements, $60 million for an underground parking garage, and grants to many small arts and community organizations.

He did not include money for the memorial because he said private money and other government sources would be better ways to pay for it rather than out of the federal Community Development Block Grants used to create and fund the L.M.D.C.

“The memorial is so special and so needy, it deserves its own funding stream,” said Gerson. “I don’t think Community Development Block Grants were intended for the memorial. It’s not part of community development.”

Monica Iken, whose husband was killed on Sept. 11, 2001 and who will be fundraising for the memorial as a member of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said she does not want to see L.M.D.C. money used up for other projects before financing for the memorial is secure.

“We should definitely make sure the memorial gets done first in a timely manner,” she said. The foundation board is looking to raise about $250 million for the memorial and $250 million for the cultural center and will likely need additional money from other sources, such as the L.M.D.C., Iken said.

Dep. Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who is in charge of the city’s Lower Manhattan development plans, told Downtown Express last year that he thought the memorial and cultural center would require several hundred million dollars of L.M.D.C. money. The governor and mayor each appoint half the agency’s members, meaning both sides have to agree before any big decisions can be made.

Madelyn Wils, an L.M.D.C. board member, said the site questions are key to the debate. “What are we going to spend on the site,” she asked in a telephone interview. “That is something we don’t have a lot of clarity on…. What if the memorial foundation can’t raise the money and the L.M.D.C. money is already spent?”

The site, which is owned by the Port Authority, will require an elaborate and expensive infrastructure system underground to support the memorial, cultural buildings and office towers. Roland Betts, an L.M.D.C. member, said last year that some L.M.D.C. money will be needed for office infrastructure, but Doctoroff and some others who also have a say over L.M.D.C. money said they were opposed to that.

Betts told Downtown Express last week that it remains unclear how much money will be spent on the site. In contrast to other board members interviewed for this article, Betts said the agency is further along in producing the report. He said a lot of work has already gone into the report and it will explain why each proposal will be funded and how much it will cost. “It’ll be project – dollars, project – dollars,” Betts said.

Wils, also chairperson of Community Board 1, said she didn’t want to comment on her off-site spending priorities until her fellow community board members see a presentation on a few more projects.

She said the plans for Greenwich Street South look impressive and she hopes her fellow C.B. 1 members have the same reaction. “I like that one a lot,” she said. The idea behind that project is to put a platform over the entrance ramp to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel creating space to build a park and create a residential-friendly area in a somewhat deserted part of Downtown.

The L.M.D.C. received $2.78 billion in the community block grants after 9/11 and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development has approved $1.91 billion in spending. Some of the largest expenditures have included $750 million to repair public utilities in Lower Manhattan, $300 million for a rent subsidy program to attract and retain Downtown residents and about $165 million to buy and dismantle the contaminated Deutsche bank building across the street. The L.M.D.C. board has also set aside an additional $45 million for the Deutsche project although it hopes to recoup almost all of that from Deutsche and its insurers; and $53 million for affordable housing although it has not yet submitted that plan to HUD.

The L.M.D.C. currently has $877 million of money free although assuming HUD approves all the board’s outstanding spending requests and the agency gets no money back from Deutsche, the figure will drop to $772 million, according to the L.M.D.C..

The $772 million plus the Deutsche fund recovery will be divided between the memorial, cultural center and any number of other projects.

The spring recommendations for the money will come too late for ROC-NY, a group of Windows on the World workers who wanted to open a restaurant in Tribeca.

Saru Jayaraman, executive director of the group, said they applied over two years ago for $1 million - $2 million from the L.M.D.C. and never heard anything. Fearing their Italian investors would pull out of the deal, Jayaraman said the group signed a lease this year near the Public Theater in the Village — north of Houston St. and outside the L.M.D.C. jurisdiction.

“Here are these Italian investors willing to invest half a million dollars and no American investors came forward,” said Jayaraman. Seventy-three restaurant workers at Windows were killed in the 2001 attack. “We’re doing Lower Manhattan development and we’re survivors – there’s no better use under the L.M.D.C. guidelines. Shame on the L.M.D.C.”

“L.M.D.C. has focused its funding on rebuilding the World Trade Center site and on a fitting memorial to the lives that were lost,” said Joanna Rose, L.M.D.C. spokesperson, in response to the criticism. The Empire State Development Corp. and the city’s Economic Development Corporation concentrated on small business initiatives after the 9/11 attack, while the L.M.D.C. has funded short-term improvements Downtown in addition to focusing on the site.

With the focus moving to the L.M.D.C.’s remaining money, David Dyssegaard Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute is cautiously optimistic at the recent signals that the agency will increase the level of public input before spending the rest of the money. He said public meetings where people break up into small focus groups may be the best way to get comments. In the summer of 2002, 4,000 participants in a forum co-sponsored by the L.M.D.C. led to a rejection of six W.T.C. site plans and led to the current plan by Daniel Libeskind; and in the summer of 2003, the L.M.D.C. held neighborhood workshops to get comments on spending priorities.

These forums “showed the public understands some of the tradeoffs that will be made,” Kallick said. “Every time the public gets involved, the process gets better.”

Josh@DowntownExpress.com


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