Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the goings on at 470 Vanderbilt, the empty factory and parking lot that backs onto Fulton Street. The shadowy GFI Corporation bought the property and was about to lose it to foreclosure in October when the full City Council came riding to the rescue. The Council underwrote 20 years of rent from the Human Resources Administration, who will move a Medicaid office from Brooklyn Heights and a Welfare office from 34th Street in Manhattan into 470 Vanderbilt next year. 1,800 HRA employees will process 1,500 clients a day at the largest intake center in the City.
GFI is partners with the Carlyle Group, Pratt Area Community Council and FAB, the Fulton BID. The team quietly landed an affordable housing deal for the parking lot two years ago. Their lobbyist, former Councilman Ken Fisher, who appeared at the Society for Clinton Hill meeting in September to get Society approval on the HRA piece, has testified there’s no money for the foreseeable future to build on the parking lot. Not to worry. Affordable housing is lucrative even while you’re waiting for government money to flow again because in the meantime you get the tax breaks. And you tie up the property. No one else can get it.
GFI sits on the large FAB board as a voting “A” class landowner. So does Shirley McRae, who also sits on the City Planning Commission. In early October the Planning Commission reviewed GFI’s HRA application. The FAB Manager and FAB Vice President appeared before it to advocate for GFI, the Vice President vouching on the signatures of five merchants for all the merchants on Fulton Street, probably none of whom — besides her five — had ever heard of GFI. The City Planning Commission came out 9-0 for GFI, pretty much guaranteeing the City Council vote would be equally automatic and unanimous.
470 Vanderbilt is another premium property in PACC’s steadily growing collection. This mendicant organization is rumored to be the biggest real estate holder in Clinton Hill today, not bad for starting out poor and volunteer in the 1960s, so long ago they called themselves “Pratt Area” because Pratt Institute was known when Fort Greene wasn’t. The borrowed affiliation has been an advantage, at the same time leaving PACC free to roam far from the old campus.
PACC began scouting Fulton Street about 15 years ago. It created the Director for Economic Development for Fulton Street, a title awarded a sequence of young women without business experience. They reported Fulton Street needed emergency aid. That’s when PACC started on the Fulton BID (Business Improvement District).
PACC expertly guided the BID papers through the years-long process of meetings and greetings but hit a snag at the last minute when the proposal lost in a neighborhood plebiscite by a count of 160 to one. The City Clerk threw out those ballots on the grounds that no one but property owners were eligible — and they were attaching notarized deeds. PACC said it filed 65 such votes, which turned out to be enough. On December 8, 2008 the City Council passed the Fulton BID 51-0.
So PACC had its BID, perfectly timed for double-header action at 470 Vanderbilt. PACC opened up offices at 900 Fulton for itself and the BID named “FAB,” and began collecting the FAB supertax from all the stores, including those who had voted against the BID and those who didn’t know anything about it. BID law dictates that everyone has to pay; if you don’t, you can lose your business.
There are good BIDs and bad BIDs. The Myrtle Avenue BID is a good BID. The Fulton BID is not.
Where MARP enjoys the robust good will of its members, the skies over FAB remain dark with the clouds of the contested election. Requests for a new fair open vote have been stonewalled.
The President of PACC runs FAB from the blind of the Office of Secretary. She picked another young woman without business experience for FAB President, and keeps the Manager under thumb. She told a group of concerned shopkeepers in spring of 2009 “legal issues” prevented their examining the 65 votes with the notarized deeds. 80 Fulton shopkeepers signed and sent a letter to the Commissioner of the Department of Finance, which collects the BID supertax, cc’ed to the BID board — which includes the Mayor, Borough President, Comptrollor and City Council rep — respectfully asking for a new, open election. The letter went answered. Not so much as a boilerplate reply. Last Thanksgiving-time another letter went out to the FAB President, cc’s to the executive board, asking for a new vote. Copies of that letter are available at the information table tonight.
When that letter went unanswered, copies were mailed to the full board. Letters to those board members whose addresses don’t appear on the FAB web site were sent to the PACC/FAB office at 900 Fulton Street and apparently not forwarded on: The letter remains unacknowledged. Not one word from a single member on a board of 29.
The BID is supposed to provide the taxed stores with security and sanitation services beyond those they already pay for in commercial taxes. In the case of FAB, any pretense toward extra security was quickly abandoned, unless you count the high-tech surveillance camera and locked door at the PACC/FAB office. Snow removal? FAB’s preparedness for the Christmas blizzard matched the City’s: Fulton Street was impassable for as many days as the non-BID blocks around it. Why didn’t FAB invest some of its $300,000 a year budget in snowblowers and plows? Because it chooses to act like the dancing grasshopper of summer, spending freely on parties like FABFest that went on all June in Fort Greene. They say FABFest cost $30,000. Clinton Hill merchants got nothing from FABFest but the bills.
Last Friday was another monthly FAB Friday, another FAB initiative that charges all the stores to promote the chosen few. FAB thinks FAB Fridays are the key to big profits. The owner of a new food boutique says FAB Fridays have been great, but for most stores the second Friday of the month is the day before Saturday. Jerry at Fulton Auto Repair says he hasn’t had a single request for a FAB Friday oil change in two FAB Fridays. He wanted to know what FAB does with all his money. Jerry has his own plow, hooked up to his own SUV to clear his own snow. Another storeowner laughed when asked if FAB Friday was helping. No, and the last time the FAB Manager dropped in, he said the owner should replace his fluorescent lights to save money. The owner told the man that’s why he has the lights — because they do save money. This owner said the best advertising for stores where he is was handouts on the street — “EVERYTHING 10% OFF TODAY & TOMORROW!!!” Inexpensive and effective but banned by the newer, fancier Fulton a few years ago.
Why would anyone expect FAB to care any more about small businesses than PACC does, who unforgettably declined to join the neighborhood fight back in the day to save eight Mom n Pop laundromats from wipe-out by the Clean Rite chain. Clean Rite came on, eight little laundromats went down and PACC came out ahead: FAB got a corporation on the hook for a huge BID tax.
A couple of weeks ago the City shut a store on a permit technicality. The owner couldn’t come up on the spot with $2,500 to renew and lost four days of business. Councilwoman James’s office shifted into overdrive to get him back open. PACC’s current homeschooled Director for Economic Development called the Department of Small Business Services, and told the closed-down storeowner that the staffer she spoke to there said, “If he doesn’t have $2,500, he shouldn’t be in business.” The FAB Manager said he felt bad.
In a serious BID funds would be held in an interest-bearing account for just such a scenario. Money would be ready to front at a modest rate and the loan could be paid off quickly because the store would be back in business right away. A $2,500 fee wouldn’t lead to a $10,000 loss at the cash register.
FAB doesn’t understand that because FAB doesn’t work for a living. FAB lives from those who do. Small store owners on Fulton Street pay down the mortgage on the $1,800,000 Fort Greene home of the FAB Manager. If they lose their leases, as ten little owners have in FAB’s two years, he’s unaffected, actually better off because as rents climb, so will FAB’s taxes and his salary. The Manager has had no comment on the sudden shut down of the beloved Mega Dry Cleaners, a Fulton mainstay for 30 years. Customers are angry and the neighborhood alarmed because the entire Mega block is now in the hands of a single owner who has seen the killing to be made, thanks in no small part to FAB and to PACC, which conducts quarterly tours of available rentals in its “Rolling Back the Gates” program.
The FAB Manager is quoted in a story in a blog about a new hipster bar, the Hanson Dry, that just opened in the former Hanson Dry Cleaners. The Manager called it “exciting,” which he might also say should a bar called the “Mega Dry” open one day at 916 Fulton.
We can only guess that’s what he would say because he’s not here to say anything. He canceled his appearance tonight in protest of the invited speakers. He’s not here to say, possibly, FAB can’t get involved with what’s happening in the Mega block because FAB believes the market has to play out. Maybe FAB wants to appear hands-off on the Mega block, but FAB does run market interference. Remember PACC and FAB and 470 Vanderbilt? PACC and FAB went to the mat for GFI.
And why not? Birds of a feather, corporations stick together. The Manager has described FAB as “a corporation like IBM,” run on executive privilege. Board sessions (and their minutes) are closed. Non-board shopkeepers can sit in only once a year, at the annual meeting. One immigrant merchant scared of FAB was coaxed into coming to the first annual meeting last June and then he was really scared: An armed police officer from the 88th Precinct was posted to watch the merchants the entire time.
BIDs were invented for large businesses, not Mom n Pops, but government sees mad money in redefining the term to mean almost anything at all … like eminent domain, whose clear intent was public use — fire house, hospital, highway — now means basketball arena. BIDs — notably FAB, which resourcefully taxes a row of small homes — have started to slip the puny confines of the business universe. A local elected has proposed a “PID,” or Park Improvement District, to levy residents adjacent to the unaffordable Brooklyn Bridge Park. The political imagination at work. It wouldn’t be much of a political stretch then to invest BIDs with the power of eminent domain. Would it?
My comments are concluded. Please note the following changes to tonight’s speakers’ schedule:
Adel Hammas was supposed to be next but he says he can’t get away from the store. Mr. Hammas said the FAB man had stopped in his place for the first time, wanting to talk about the BID. A colleague, Bilal, will fill in.
Rocky Widdi won’t be here tonight, either. He went home because someone told him the meeting had been canceled.
Phillip Kellogg won’t be here tonight because he canceled. Mr. Demu will be speaking in his time slot.
Thank you again for the opportunity to present.
Society for Clinton Hill 1-20-2011
Queen of All Saints Church