Margaret Chin, Progressively Awful

A hundred years ago being a Progressive meant you were in favor of civil service reform, eugenics, and the referendum.  Nowadays being a Progressive means being in favor of social and economic justice and against stop-and-frisk…I guess. It isn’t entirely clear what the label means.  But whatever it is, if it includes Margaret Chin, Council Member for CD 1, it doesn’t mean much of anything at all.

CM Chin, a member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, represents Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown.  She got her start in politics as a housing advocate and was a founding member of Asian Americans for Equality, which originated as a front group for the Communist Workers Party.  She appears to have pedaled back from her Maoist commitments since then, and even from the rather less stringent doctrines of the Progressive Caucus. 

Signing on with Jobs for New York, the political action committee of the Real Estate Board of New York, Margaret Chin has endorsed the platform of the most pro-developer, anti-tenant organization in the city.  REBNY has promised to spend $10 million in 2013 to defeat candidates opposed to its agenda.  So far this season, Jobs for New York has spent more than $80,000 on Chin’s mailers, one of which calls her “Maragret.”  Coming from a soi-disant “passionate advocate for tenants’ rights,” Chin's evident doublethink is dizzying.

Chin’s record in her district on development issues is terrible.  When she took office, the oldest building on the Bowery was a circa-1817 Federal Era wood framed structure at 135 Bowery.  First American International Bank, a local company, owned the building, which was designated as a landmark in June 2011 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Under Council tradition, local Members direct their colleagues how to vote on most land use proposals, and Chin urged removal of the landmark designation, allowing the owner to destroy the historic property, which was in fact torn down. 

Executives and employees of the First American International Bank then contributed $5,910 to Chin’s re-election campaign.

Council Member Chin, who had originally claimed to support the landmarking of 135 Bowery, argued that, “there is opportunity on the site to build commercial space that is so needed in the Chinatown community for the small businesses.”  She claimed repeatedly that the commercial space would provide “affordable office space,” that would be below market-rate.

Here we see the shibboleth “affordable” brought out like a fetish to dispel criticism of real estate development.  Affordable housing is always promised, but at least that is an actual thing, which can be given to people with low incomes.  But how would “affordable office space” be allocated?  To businesses that need more money?  To non-profits run by her supporters?  It is totally absurd and fantastically cynical for Chin to make such a promise. 

In another case where Margaret Chin set aside Progressive principles of transparency and open government, we find that 183 East Broadway, owned by Ching Sun “Norman” Wong, was built in contravention of building code.  It was too tall and violated the “sliver law.”  It did not have enough open space.  Demolition and structural work caused neighboring buildings to crack.  Its scaffold fell on and hurt a pedestrian.  The city halted construction.

Wong’s lawyer pled to the community board that his client, who owns a real estate company, is “in the noodle business…doesn’t know much about real estate.”  He also said that Wong gave the community “$150,000 in grants and donations” (unspecified), and wanted help to finish building the structure without having to follow the law.

The board voted to support Wong, and the Bureau of Standards and Appeals went along with the board.  Presumably Council Member Chin could have stepped in at any time, but why should she?  Norman Wong gave her campaign $2,750.

When I interviewed Margaret Chin in 2009, I asked her about NYU’s plans for expanding its footprint through the lower Village.  Chin said forcefully, “NYU needs to be reined in, and made to understand that lower Manhattan is not a college town.”  Once elected however, Council Member Chin went along with the Speaker, and approved NYU’s plans to continue devouring downtown.

Assuming Margaret Chin is re-elected, it will be interesting to see what happens next term when the Progressive Caucus reconstitutes itself.  Will Chin, a “proud member,” remain as such?  Or will the Caucus expel this running dog from its midst?

Corey Johnson's Continuing Deceptions

CD 3 candidate Corey Johnson misrepresents his role in developing affordable housing in Brooklyn, repeatedly taking credit for a project that not only has no affordable housing: it has no housing at all.

Last month, City Council Watch broke the story of Corey Johnson’s work for real estate developer GFI, which he had scrubbed from his record.  In response, Johnson has changed his campaign website, adding some information about his work history and his present employment:

[…serving] at GFI Development Company on community outreach on two hotel projects in Manhattan and an affordable housing related project in Brooklyn. Corey currently works part-time in LGBT marketing at the Sydell Group.

The “affordable housing related project” Johnson refers to is 470 Vanderbilt Avenue, in Fort Greene.  The building, a former tire factory which was at one point supposed to house tech companies, stood in disuse before GFI bought it in 2008 with plans to rehab the building as mixed-use residential and commercial space, ideally capturing a major City agency as a long-term tenant.

As part of the deal to allow GFI to build out the structure and sign the Human Resources Agency to a 20-year lease, the company agreed to build a 350-unit residential building on the site of the building’s parking lot.  The company, after negotiations with local Council Member Letitia James, agreed to include 90 affordable units, more than the usual 20% allowance in such projects.

Corey Johnson worked for the GFI development team at 470 Vanderbilt, and at a West Village community forum on June 19, he made a strong case for the good work he and GFI did in increasing the stock of affordable housing in Brooklyn.  Video was taken of his speech, and we have transcribed his comments:

One more thing, to be fully transparent:  the same company that built that hotel on 29th and Broadway, they were going to do a residential building in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, on a former manufacturing lot.  They asked me to come in and work with the local community board in Fort Greene, and the local Council Member, to make sure there was an affordable housing component to that building.  When we started off, before I came in, they were going to do 20% affordable housing.  When the rezoning was over, I got them up to 26% affordable housing, and maximized the number of two-bedrooms, for people in the community that needed affordable housing.

Sounds great!  Between this impassioned and detailed description of all the affordable two-bedroom apartments Corey Johnson fought to build, and his discussion of the project on his website, who can deny that Corey Johnson and GFI are a force for good?  As he says, he single-handedly pushed GFI to increase the amount of affordable housing they were going to build.

The only problem is that none of the housing was ever built470 Vanderbilt is an office building.  Nobody lives there, and nobody can live there, because the entire lot, including the part where the residential units were to be built, was zoned as commercial real estate by GFI in 2011, while Johnson was still employed by the company.

Corey Johnson hedged the impact of his work on 470 Vanderbilt when, on his campaign website, he speaks of an “affordable housing related project.”  But when he spoke at the community forum he  lost control of what he was saying: he takes full credit for plans that were never realized.  The two-bedrooms that he is bragging about having built “for people in the community” do not exist. 

We spoke to Council Member James about what happened to the affordable housing component of the 470 Vanderbilt project.  She commented about the problem of getting developers to commit to actually building what they promise to build, and noted that this problem is endemic to the land use process in New York City generally.

Regarding 470 Vanderbilt, CM James said, “I pushed very hard to get affordable housing established in that project. Corey was part of the development team, and he may have negotiated behind the scenes.  I don’t know the extent of his work on the project.  However, unfortunately, the lot is still a parking lot.”

So, according to the council member with whom Corey Johnson claims to have worked to build more affordable housing, his involvement was vague at best, and James has no specific recollection of his participation. 

We thought that Corey Johnson was slightly deceptive when he tried to deflect attention from his professional association with a real estate developer, but many candidates for office massage their bios, and it isn’t necessarily a major sin.  However, we now see Johnson making public speeches where he overstates and distorts his role in land use negotiations, and furthermore, brags passionately about fantasy residential developments that were never built, as though people are actually living in them!

Corey Johnson builds castles in air and is irate when his good faith is challenged.  We have heard a lot of grandiose megalomaniacal politicians talk wildly about their achievements, but they usually take credit for things that actually exist. Johnson appears to be an utter fabulist, an egoist with scant regard for reality, pointing at a barren lot and waving at all the happy people he has housed there.