One of the Bloomberg administration’s first initiatives was an effort to resolve quickly the various lawsuits against the city left over from the Giuliani years. But if the mayor’s recent settlement of litigation concerning city-owned community gardens is any indication of how his administration plans to handle such lawsuits in the future, the result is likely to be a series of expensive policy defeats for New York.
Earlier this week, the administration came to an agreement with environmentalists, community gardeners, and State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to preserve as gardens hundreds of city-owned plots that Mayor Giuliani had sought to auction off for housing development. Much of this land wound up in local gardeners’ hands during the Koch years, when the city took over hundreds of abandoned, garbage-strewn lots in neighborhoods where demand for new building was non-existent. The city gave some of the sites over to community groups for temporary use, until the housing market improved. At that point, New York would reassume control of the land.
It didn’t work out that way. During the booming 1990s, when Gotham’s population swelled and declines in crime made many neighborhoods more attractive places to live, the Giuliani administration began trying to auction off the sites, hoping to spur production of thousands of units of housing, including much-needed units for the elderly. Support for turning the land into housing came from across the political spectrum and included former Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer and members of Community Board 10 in Harlem. But environmentalists and gardeners, seeking to maintain their hold on the property, sued to stop the auctions. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer joined the suits on the side of the community groups. Last week’s decision keeps up to 400 plots in gardeners’ hands, while freeing only about 150 for auction and immediate development.
In a city with a perpetual housing crisis, where the residential vacancy rate is under 5 percent and sale prices of apartments have continued rising even during the current recession, nothing justifies this settlement. It’s a reminder to the consensus-seeking Bloomberg administration that compromise isn’t always a good thing—sometimes, Mayor Giuliani’s “my way or no way” attitude made sense. That was all the more true after a Manhattan judge gave the city a victory in April by turning aside one lawsuit by one of these gardening advocacy groups. But if Bloomberg’s policymakers are going to compromise just to distinguish themselves from Giuliani’s hard-edged style, Gotham’s scores of public advocacy groups will take them to the cleaners.
The land deal was especially infuriating, because the Bloomberg administration has yet to articulate, much less put into effect, a housing strategy. There’s no money in the city budget for huge building subsidies, and Bloomberg’s team has shown little interest so far in attacking the complex rules, zoning codes, and other barriers that make building so difficult in the city. The garden plots thus represented one of the few tangible ways for city government to promote housing.
Even more appalling was Attorney General Spitzer’s role in this debacle. There was never any imperative for the increasingly left-leaning Spitzer to join this lawsuit against the city, except to woo environmental groups. Spitzer, of course, can make these kinds of calculated political deals without worrying about their economic consequences, because, as the scion of a wealthy family, he’ll never have to fret about finding his own affordable housing in New York City. In fact, to finance his last campaign, Spitzer used eight Manhattan apartments that he had owned as collateral for a loan. When you have that kind of real estate portfolio, it’s easy to care more about preserving gardens than developing housing.