Phil’s Honey Smacks Comparison: Don’t be Fooled by Domino and 77 Commercial Sts.’ False Marketing

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I always enjoy going to the supermarket with my kids. It’s a great place to teach them about deceptive packaging. My latest example was a box of Honey Smacks Cereal.

When you look at the box, it tells you that it’s made with wheat and honey, that it’s a good source of vitamins, low fat, and only 100 calories per serving.

So the box says it’s a good choice for us to eat, right Dad? Well, guess what Kids? This same cereal has been named among the most unhealthy cereal sold today. It contains 55.6% sugar. Maybe that’s why Kellogg’s changed the name to Honey Smacks from its original name Sugar Smacks! You are essentially eating a “healthier” breakfast eating a pack of Twinkies. But Kellogg’s vice president of nutrition Linda Sutherland said that Honey Smacks, the cereal with the highest sugar content, isn’t marketed to children.

Any parent who has walked down the cereal aisle with a kid will tell you that Sutherland’s comment is ludicrous! Kids love the smiling frog which tells you to “DIG ‘EM” on the front of every Honey Smacks Box. And any health advocate who’s fighting for more regulation of food products marketed to children, will tell you that Sugar/Honey Smacks still contains an excessive amount of sugar. So my kids get Multi-Grain Cheerios, a better choice for them.

So by now you are probably asking, where are you going with this Phil? Well, the current plans presented for the Greenpoint waterfront and the Domino Sugar site, in Williamsburg, are very similar to that box of Honey Smacks. The developers’ respective sales pitches say it’s good for you, but if you look closely at the details, it’s really not.

First, let’s look at the Honey Smacks plan for 77 Commercial Street in Greenpoint: According to the offering, the box says you’re getting affordable housing. Well that’s good right? No it isn’t, if affordable means you have to make a salary of $85,900 a year to qualify.

77 Commercial Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS)

The EAS for 77 Commercial states that in the future, with the proposed actions (the “With-Action Scenario”), the development site would be developed with approximately 720 dwelling units (200 of which would be affordable to low-, moderate-and middle-income households.

Accordingly, the proposed breakdown of the 200 affordable housing units would be as follows: 72 low-income units (household income below 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI)), 108 moderate-income units (household income below 125 percent of the AMI) and 20 middle-income units (household income below 175 percent of the AMI).

But the non-binding Points of Agreement from the 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront laid out a far different plan for this site. Let’s call this version Cheerios.

WG rezoning 2005 Points of Agreement

Commitment on Public and Partner Sites
The Administration commits to developing affordable housing using available public sites and to work with the existing owners to develop affordable housing on the partners sites listed below. The Administration anticipates that these sites will generate affordable units. These units will target the following income groups: 20% between 20-30% of AMI, 40% between 30-60% of AMI, 20% between 60-80% of AMI and 20% between 80-125% of AMI.

And for those who do not understand what AMI means here is an income level chart that shows how much you have to earn, to apply in a lottery for an affordable unit. It’s also important to remember that thousands of applications come in for every unit offered.

The maximum incomes (adjusted for family size) are as follows:

40% of AMI
$34,360- Family of four
$30,960- Family of three
$27,520- Family of two
$24,080- Individual

50% of AMI
$42,950- Family of four
$38,700- Family of three
$34,400- Family of two
$30,100- Individual

60% of AMI
$51,540- Family of four
$46,440- Family of three
$41,280- Family of two
$36,120- Individual

100% of AMI
$85,900- Family of four
$77,400- Family of three
$68,800- Family of two
$60,200- Individual

130% of AMI
$111,670- Family of four
$100,620- Family of three
$89,440- Family of two
$78,260- Individual

175% of AMI
$150,325- Family of four
$135,450- Family of three
$120,400- Family of two
$105,350- Individual

It’s also important to remember that the original plan called for only 400 units with 200 affordable. Now we are up to 720 units with the same 200 units of out of reach affordable housing at income levels that are much higher than the Bloomberg administration claimed. Just like that box of Honey Smacks!

Don’t forget, how Council Member Diana Reyna and former Council Member David Yassky hailed the 2005 rezoning as a way to preserve the community and create affordable housing. Now eight years later, we see that the rezoning did the exact opposite of its alleged intent. Again it was supposed to be Cheerios but turned out to be Honey Smacks!

Also the plan for the former Domino Sugar refinery was sold as a 30% affordable housing plan to pacify affordable housing advocates but when the plan was finalized in the City Council the 30% affordable housing went by the wayside in a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). At a community meeting in March, Jed Walentas told reporters: “The community certainly feels like that was promised (30% affordability). The reality, from any sort of legal or practical real financial plan put in place by government or the previous owner, that was not the case.” Walentas also told neighbors that don’t like his massive waterfront plan that he would go back to the site’s previous development blueprint.

Want Money for your Neighb? You Gotta Vote!

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On September 10, it’s Primary day; your day to make a difference. In the last election, in 2009, voter turnout in Greenpoint and Williamsburg was abysmal. Most North Brooklyn census tracts had turnouts below 20%. It’s vital to remind yourself how important your vote really is.

So, what do you gain through voting? Elected officials know who votes. If this community is turning out less than other neighborhoods, elected officials will pay less attention to us, make fewer appearances here, and provide fewer services.

Those who vote have a powerful impact on public policy and government. You and your neighbors have policy and political concerns, whether they’re related to a particular issue or priorities for public budgets—and they won’t be known if you don’t vote!

Now some will say all parties are essentially owned, and aim to do the bidding of powerful lobbying groups. There are no candidates worth voting for. They all come from the same mold. And some will say, “All are corrupt.” So, does that mean voting is a waste of time?

Never. Voting is a responsibility of the citizens of a free nation, one that ensures the government is run by the appropriate people. Those who don’t vote due to political apathy or laziness give up their right to express an opinion about the government.

Your future, and the future of the community, depend on everyone’s vote. Many times the polls don’t accurately reflect the actual outcome, and so voters stay home and don’t vote. And that allows the bad apples in government to stay in power! If you don’t vote, don’t complain about the government.

The excuse heard most often for not voting in a public election is, “my one little vote won’t make a difference.” Do you really think so?

In 2009, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ran for a third term, his opponent Bill Thompson lost by less than 5% of the vote. In the days leading up to the election, polls showed Bloomberg with as much as an 18-point lead. Many voters decided it was over and stayed home, allowing the Mayor to win his third term. Last year, in another low voter-turnout race, Chris Olechowski defeated Lincoln Restler by 19 votes in their contentious race for the post of 50th Assembly District Leader.

If you thought your one vote wouldn’t make a difference, think again—and cast your vote.

Still on fire,

Phil

 

Who knew low-income wage earners are subsidizing the developers?

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The New New Domino:
Déjà vu All Over Again

By Phil DePaolo

As I predicted, CPC Resources, the original developer for the Domino Sugar Refinery, flipped the property to a new developer, Two Trees Management, for a huge $120 million profit. So there’s a new plan afoot for the refinery, one the new developer has made even larger than CPC Resources’ massive plan, and one that is much larger than what is currently on the Williamsburg waterfront.

The new Domino plan, created by SHoP Architects, would take 15 years to build, according to the developer. But remember that Bruce Ratner initially said the entire Atlantic Yards project would be built in 10 years. Now that number has been revised to 25 years.

The new proposed plan is said to offer increased open space, and maybe the same amount of affordable housing (660 units). At a recent meeting at The Woods, in Brooklyn, the developer claimed that the affordable housing would be offered to residents earning 60% ($45,000) to 80% ($65,000) of the citywide area median income (AMI). However, the AMI for Community Board #1 is $41,000, with most of the residents who are facing displacement earning $17,000 to $29,000 per year. A current lottery for affordable units at 1560 Fulton Street in Brooklyn at 80% of AMI is offering one-bedroom apartments at $1,887 per month. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair market rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment in New York State is $1,313.

In order to afford this level of rent and utilities without paying more than 30% of one’s income on housing, a household must earn $4,376 monthly, or $52,513 annually. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a housing wage of $25.25 per hour.

In New York, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $7.25. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 139 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 3.5 minimum wage earners working 40 hours per week, year-round, to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

In New York, the estimated average wage for a renter is $21.59 per hour. To afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 47 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.2 workers earning the mean renter wage to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable. So at higher rents this so-called affordable housing becomes out-of-reach housing. And believe me, affordable housing is a cash bonanza. In exchange for 660 units of affordable housing, Two Trees can get $100 million in federal Section 8 subsidies and low income housing tax credits, direct funding and low interest loans from New York City HPD/HDC, and 421a property tax breaks from the city. In other words, tax dollars, some of which come from low income working residents who will be priced out of the new Domino!

The new Domino plan calls for a 598-foot tower (an almost 60-story building), much taller than the previous 40-story limit, and two 590-foot towers. The inland property is reported to also include a tower that would be 270 feet, also much larger than what CPC Resources was going to build. There will be 2,284 apartments, up from 2,200, and 630,000 square feet of office space, up from 100,000. The new office space will add up to 4,000 people to the community.

Below is the comparison chart produced by Two Trees. The original plan called for up to 2,400 units, but CPC Resources planned to build 2,200 units:

Two Trees head Jed Walentas was quoted at a community meeting at The Woods as saying, “We spent $185 million on the site and we are going to make a return.” In reality, Two Trees paid $55 per buildable square foot based on the request for 3.37 million square feet. Two Trees is also saying they are increasing the project’s open space by 60%, to 5.3 acres, and plan to include a floating pool, kayak launch, esplanade, and seasonal ice-skating rink. But with thousands more office workers, how much open space is really added?

Two Trees has leverage and has already flexed its muscle by telling community leaders that if their new vision is not approved, they will build CPC Resources’ original plan, which, due to a failure by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, made the “guaranteed claims” of CPC Resources for 30% affordability housing non-binding for Two Trees. Two Trees will begin the land use review in the next few months, so the community begins another chapter in the Domino Sugar saga. Stay tuned.

OP-ED What Charter Schools Were Meant to Be

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By Phil DePaolo

The latest contested issue in Williamsburg is the attempt by former Manhattan City Council Member Eva Moskowitz, who turned entrepreneur, to open her brand of for-profit charter school (Brooklyn Success Academy Charter School) at the same location as JHS 50, at 183 South 3rd Street. The school, which houses 470 middle school students, also houses another public school, the Academy for Young Writers, which is scheduled to move elsewhere. At a recent hearing, hundreds of local residents came out to oppose the opening of the Success Academy charter school. It’s been documented that Moskowitz bussed in hundreds of Harlem residents to give the appearance of community support.

Charter schools in New York were started by the late Al Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, among others. Shanker believed that charter schools couldn’t change education if they were disconnected from regular public schools. He wrote in a 1994 column in the New York Times: “Charter schools must have autonomy to get where they want to go, but they must also be part of a system that has a central purpose, and that means a system that has decided what kids need to know and be able to do. Otherwise, they will end up like all those alternative schools of the 1960s, relevant only to themselves and useless to the system as a whole.”

Shanker became critical of charter schools as they moved away from their original intent. He warned that without well crafted legislation and public oversight, business interests—whose real aim is to smash public schools, according a former colleague of Shanker—would hijack the charter school concept.

Shanker envisioned charter schools as centers of innovation in academic excellence, intending them to be small pilot schools where new ideas could be tested. If successful, the innovations would be brought into the larger public school system so all students could benefit. He also argued that excellence could not be regulated, that top-down micro management could not replace the on-site judgment of professional educators, and that teachers should have the opportunity to innovate. He maintained that a more professional school system would attract the more capable workforce needed to meet the growing demands on public schools.

Shanker also worried that for-profit companies would care more about looking after their shareholders than educating children, or even worse, would become a gimmick for hucksters. Today, charter schools answer to their own boards of trustees. And while it is supposed to be unbiased, they have been accused of discriminatory selecting processes, excluding children with special needs or who speak English as a second language. Shanker believed that, sadly, his charter proposal was hijacked by political conservatives and transformed into something similar to a private school voucher plan, aimed at weakening public schools and undermining unions and collective bargaining. Ultimately, Shanker led his union in opposition to the charter school movement he helped to launch. Today, the Department of Education is allowing placement of charter schools in public school buildings. I have heard firsthand accounts of charter school students having greater access to school libraries and other school facilities than the public school students. In some shared schools, public school students are required to pass through metal detectors while charter school students are not. This creates a sense of inequity among students.

Mayor Bloomberg and some New York media editorial boards are demanding that public schools start firing bad teachers, but the Mayor relies heavily on test scores. If you look only at test scores, teachers in affluent communities get higher scores. Some principals group students by perceived intelligence, so teachers who teach the neediest children—speakers of English as a second language, special education students, and autistic students—will see the smallest gains, potentially giving teachers a good reason not to want to teach classes with large numbers of these students.

I believe the job of evaluating teachers belongs to principals. The best way to keep effective teachers in our public schools is to have principals who are knowledgeable educators. I have spoken to many teachers who feel today’s principals are driven solely by test scores, since principals and teachers receive merit pay based on the results of standardized tests. Well-rounded curricula, arts, and even gym time are sacrificed year- round for additional test prep time in many of today’s public schools.

And isn’t it ironic that the same mayor who claims to have made great strides in improving public schools now closes many of them to make way for more charter schools, instead of fixing the problem? While the Department of Eduction gives charter schools dollars that could go to public school classrooms, charter schools are also funded by Wall Street and Walmart, while the Mayor cuts public school budgets and tells principals, year after year, to do more with less.

If we are serious about improving our schools, we must take steps to improve the conditions teachers are forced to work under, while also selecting the best teacher candidates, providing higher salaries to compete with those of suburban schools, offering better support and mentoring systems, and ending merit pay. It is also vital that parents spend time doing homework with kids and communicating with teachers and support staff. Many parents don’t realize how much control they have over a child’s education.

I believe there is a place for charter schools. I just do not believe in this model. I believe Al Shanker’s vision was the right one and should be revisited. I remember once watching a charter school lottery on NY1. Parents whose children got picked were joyous, while the majority of rejected parents and children cried. They believed their child was destined to have an inferior education. That is a sad testament. Our current public school system needs to be fixed so all children can receive a first-rate education in the greatest city on earth. The Mayor should be ashamed of his failures and reliance on charter schools as a remedy. Education is a right, not a privilege for a select few lottery winners.

Still on fire

Phil

 

 

Commentary: No Jail Time for Scarano, Business as Usual

I’m not big on conspiracy theories, though you’ve got to wonder if the mere slap on the wrist architect Robert Scarano received had anything to do with politics. Was the City using Scarano to accomplish their notsohidden agenda to remake Brooklyn into high density, highrise neighborhoods? The best the City accomplished was to take away Scarano’s ability to professionally certify his filings with the Department of Buildings. The City did not go after his architect’s license, which is what was demanded by the public. So in essence, the bad get rewarded; his license (017739) to practice architecture is still active.

Scarano attempted to have the punishment lifted. The case was heard by the New York State Court of Appeals on October 25th and was not successful for him. But the punishment never did fit the crime.

Over the years, Scarano has consistently flouted building laws and zoning regulations, as well as caused the destruction of numerous adjacent properties and allegedly the death of at least one worker. Now that the Buildings Department is suddenly aware of this the department’s commissioner, Robert LiMandri, said in a statement, following the ruling: “Today’s decision sends a clear message that there are serious consequences for those who flout the law to make a profit. In his attempts to circumvent the City’s Building Code and Zoning Resolution, Mr. Scarano showed a disregard for the laws that ensure safety and quality of life for all New Yorkers.” They should have revoked his license and put him in jail if they were serious.

Until now, it’s been apparent that the City has allowed the construction of illegal buildings from North Brooklyn to Red Hook, including the original plans for the infamous “finger” building in Williamsburg, which was supposed to be the equivalent of a 22-story building and which has since been capped at 14 floors by a new owner. The name stuck because the building is so out of context with the three- and five-story buildings surrounding it. The building, located on the Northside, also caused a whole new generation of activists to protest.

I was part of a group of community organizations and residents who started a group called Stop Our Supersizing, to derail the project. Ground was broken on the building just before the City approved a zoning change prohibiting tall buildings from going up on Northside.

Prior to this, a builder in Manhattan was forced to take down two stories on a building that was too big. This hasn’t happened in Brooklyn. Nothing was done to Scarano or any of his over 100 illegal buildings. There are dozens and dozens of them that don’t meet either code or zoning requirements, many of them in Greenpoint-Williamsburg. During the last construction boom, Scarano and his clients had a field day on the backs of the communities where they were building. Now the City is actually asking the tenants and owners of condominiums that were Scarano designs to correct at their own expense those things that don’t meet the building code, such as replacing circular stairs that connect to mezzanines.

Scarano’s meteoric rise as an architect (referenced by his website which showed a 700 percent increase in businsss over a short period of time) was caused because “he could work the magic.” His most common trick was to put up buildings with double-height living rooms, and then put in a mezzanine that didn’t count as living space. This allowed the developer to build and to either rent or sell more square footage than they were entitled to. That was his big trick.

So you were getting much higher buildings, getting illegal stairs connecting the main floor, using ship ladders (steep and narrow) as a way of accessing the “storage area,” i.e. bedrooms. He professionally certified that the mezzanine was only for storage and not usable living space, so he was creating buildings with too much square footage. He was not playing by the rule book. Donald Trump did this also in buildings by the U.N.

Our own elected officials also supported Scarano’s arrogance. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz even presented a “Brooklyn Icon Award” to Scarano, saying he “truly represented faith in Brooklyn.” “And keep doing what you’ve been doing, creating a unique architectural statement for Brooklyn,” Markowitz said at the event, a gathering of developers, architects, and builders which took place at Scarano Architects’ dumbo offices. For me, the Brooklyn Icon Award was the hot knife in the back! Forget the buildings that collapsed, the workers that died, and the families he displaced, Scarano was brilliant that he got away with it for so long. This has fueled his arrogance.

Scarano signed a Buildings Department statement of responsibility for work at the 733 Ocean Parkway site where construction worker Anthony Duncan was killed by falling concrete blocks. Scarano was in charge of the underpinning shoring up a neighbor’s foundation during the excavation, which Duncan was working on when he was killed.

Though City regulations allow it, Scarano should never have signed off on the underpinning work because he is an architect and not a structural engineer. Scarano also failed to submit required plans detailing how the underpinning was to be safely done. Two other workers, Arturo Gonzalez and Heng Zheng, also were killed in accidents on Scarano projects. Yet Scarano kept getting the green light to keep going! There were even charges that the D.O.B. was helping Scarano cover up his mistakes.

In 2007, the top official responsible for enforcing building standards in the City signed secrecy agreements to hide a series of blunders that led to death and building evacuations. Patricia Lancaster, the former buildings commissioner, hid the mistakes made by Scarano.Lancaster signed a stipulation promising not to report the alleged misdeeds of Scarano to “any regulatory agency,” including one that could revoke his license.

Lancaster hid charges that Scarano signed off on unsafe conditions at the Brooklyn site where construction worker Anthony Duncan Sr. was crushed to death in a March 2006 building collapse. The victim’s family was outraged by Lancaster’s actions. Duncan’s son, Anthony Jr., said, “It’s like they’re laughing in my face. Scarano is still working, but my father is dead.”

The Department of Buildings hid problems in the self-certification program, a flawed Buildings Department honor code that allowed architects and engineers to sign off on their own work without independent review.

Countless homeowners suffered the consequences of this practice via code violations that undermined building walls and foundations, and even caused building collapses. Although Lancaster called Scarano “an egregious offender,” she repeatedly refused to explain why she struck the bargain.

So yes, Scarano can still work, but his reputation is so tarnished that most developers now avoid him because of the scrutiny he receives.

So in the end the arrogance that gave him his power was his downfall. What does it take for the City to recognize white-collar crime and do something about it to protect its citizens? This begs the question, how did the City protect Scarano—and not its own citizenry?

Still on Fire
Phil

Bloomberg Takes the Stand

It was a rare event. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the stand in the trial of political consultant John Haggerty, who is accused by the Manhattan District Attorney of stealing $1.1 million from the Mayor. $600,000 of that was paid to Haggerty himself. The money was said to be used for poll watchers on Election Day when the Mayor was running for his third term.

Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance claimed that Bloomberg gave $1.2 million from his personal account to the New York State Independence Party, to Haggerty and his Special Elections Operations. But Haggerty used the funds to purchase his late father’s estate in Forest Hills, Queens. Haggerty’s lawyers questioned Bloomberg’s spending habits and tactics. Haggerty’s lawyers also questioned why the Mayor paid for ballot security in such an indirect fashion: donating $1.2 million to the state’s Independence Party, which then transferred most of it to Haggerty.

“From an election lawyer’s point of view, the interesting issue is the transfer of the funds from the Mayor,” said Henry T. Berger, an election lawyer who represents the Democratic Party. “It appears to most election lawyers that I’ve talked to that there’s at least one, and possibly two, violations in that transfer.”

Haggerty’s lawyers questioned the legality of Bloomberg’s personal contribution to the Independence Party for his campaign. Berger said campaign finance rules prohibit money in a party’s housekeeping account from being used on a campaign. Haggerty’s lawyers said they would argue that once Bloomberg gave the money to the Independence Party, he lost legal control of the funds.

As the Mayor took the stand for two and a half hours, his testimony was vague, as he often seemed unaware of details of his own political campaign.

A mayor who portrays himself as one who runs a tight ship, it was stunning how many times questions about his political operations were answered with, “I have no recollection” or “I don’t recall.”

Haggerty’s lawyers’ questioning was so tough, the lead prosecutor claimed the defense was conducting a “trial by ambush.”

Haggerty’s lawyers showed that Bloomberg paid no attention to how much money he spent, or how he spent it. The lawyers also claimed the Mayor had no interest in the Independence Party.

When Haggerty’s lawyers grilled the Mayor asking him if his donation to the Independence Party should have followed political contribution limits, Bloomberg said, “I’m just not familiar with the details. You have to call the state government.”

Bloomberg avoided details so many times that Haggerty’s lawyers had to constantly ask, “Can you answer my question?”

Haggerty was supposed to be in charge of “ballot security” on Election Day, monitoring polling places for problems that could interfere with voting. Yet two memos were read alleging Haggerty’s job was to make sure that there was strong white turnout for Bloomberg on the Republican line against Bill Thompson. It was hoped jurors will take a dim view of how the Mayor ran his campaign. Remember, Bloomberg won by less than 5% of the vote.

So who is guilty, Haggerty or Bloomberg? Stay tuned.
Still on Fire

Luxury Living is Taking a Toll, Brother!

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By Phil DePaolo

Last month, I received an email from a resident who lives at Northside Piers (the first residential development to be built following the 2005 rezoning of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront) because he was having major problems with his unit. Located at 164 Kent Avenue, between North 3rd and 4th streets, the development group formed by LM Equity Participants, RD Management, and Toll Brothers, would develop the market-rate towers, and receive $300 million in acquisition and construction financing from Citibank Community Development.

Great fanfare accompanied the groundbreaking of Northside Piers/Palmers Dock on July 13, 2006, with the attendance of some of the city’s top brass, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development & Rebuilding Daniel L. Doctoroff, State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, former Department of Housing Preservation & Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan, Department of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Department of Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and Toll Brothers Division Vice President David Von Spreckelsen. Von Spreckelsen was quoted as saying at the event, “We are thrilled with the opportunity to participate in the revitalization of the northern Brooklyn waterfront made possible by the hard work of the Bloomberg administration in accomplishing this important re-zoning.”

The website for Northside Piers states: ”Beautifully designed, thoughtfully executed with no detail overlooked, your new condo in Williamsburg is everything you’ve ever wanted. Kitchens designed by Stephen Alton, with rich, wide-plank American walnut floors.”

When I asked what was going on in the towers, I was invited to meet many property owners in Northside Piers, all of whom were and continue to have ongoing problems with the build-quality of their units. I was also informed of claimed-problems with units that were not told to buyers until after they moved in. But before I lay out some of these issues, let’s go back to May 2007, when the first tower was being built.

In a recent March 18th New York Times article, Von Spreckelsen incorrectly states that his company built the first of two towers at its Northside Piers project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with union contractors. But in fact, as construction costs escalated in 2008, Toll Brothers turned to a non-union contractor for the second tower, prompting unions to protest with five giant inflatable rats. The truth is union workers were protesting the first tower’s use of non-union workers starting May 17, 2007 as the image below shows. Mayor Bloomberg had promised the Unions work at waterfront sites in return for support of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning in 2005. I had many conversations with workers on the site, at the time, who stated that non-union workers were being brought in, and that corners were being cut in the construction of the building.

So, it came as no surprise to me to learn that major problems now exist at Northside Piers. I have agreed not to name any of the residents who spoke to me, or name any unit because many residents are fearful of retribution from the condominium’s Board of Managers, and/or Toll Brothers. One can safely say that all new buildings are going to have some problems, and at the same time, it’s vital that any issues be resolved under the warranty the new owners receive from Toll Brothers. But it seems in interviews with many residents that Toll Brothers have gone out of their way to drag their feet in resolving issues.

Some units have had water infiltration which has resulted in the untenable condition of mold growth. In addition, many owners complained that the full-view windows that were installed, do little to keep wind and water out of their units which increases use of heat in the winter, and air conditioning in the summer, both of which run on electricity. This certainly makes our friends at Con Edison very happy, as I was shown the electricity bills for many residents averaging over $400 dollars a month.

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Just Released Public School Test Scores Ain’t Pretty

PHIL On FIRE:  New York Public School Standardized Test Scores Plunge … Surprised!  Not.

When the results of New York City test scores in reading and math weren’t released this past June, I knew something was wrong. As a parent with two kids attending NYC public schools, I’ve witnessed firsthand the amount of test preparation my kids have been made to put up with. I’ve been an outspoken critic of the myth of Mike Bloomberg’s “Control” of our schools for the last five years. The Mayor’s claims of advances in education was his main claim of achievement when he ran for his third term. I still have the flyers he mailed me, to prove it!  Today the latest round of test scores are out, and it ain’t pretty.

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City Gets “F” In Student Testing

When guessing takes the place of knowing, something’s wrong with test scoring—certainly in the New York public schools. And the release of national test scores last month has shown the extent to which our local schools are not doing their job. (See discrepancy between local and national scores on link on our online story.)

What’s happened to local test scoring to make it look better than it is? Are the alleged “improved” scores all for show? As a parent of a fourth grade student and a kindergartener, I’m concerned.

Turns out the number of answers required to pass the NY standard test has been lowered each year since 2004, when Bloomberg was elected to office. It has become so easy for a student to pass that as a recent Daily News story put, “Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to end ‘social promotion,’ sixth-graders can score high enough on state English exams to move to the next grade—just by guessing.”

The number of correct answers needed to score a Level 2 to get promoted has sunk so low, that a student can take a flyer on the multiple choice section and leave the rest of the test blank. So much for solid knowledge and—God forbid, proficiency. It looks like neither one plays a part, especially in math and reading.

In 2008, 97 percent of NYC public schools received a grade of A or B on the city report cards. The improvement was driven by broad gains on NY standardized tests in math and English. This year, the number of NYC students who met state stan­dards jumped to 82 percent in math. In English, 69 percent of students passed.

Today, records show that in New York City public schools, only 29 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading, a performance that is well below the national average. According to the national test, New York City eighth graders have shown no significant reading improvement since they began taking the test in 2003. Only 22 percent of New York City eight graders are proficient in reading.

These results differ sharply from the city’s performance on state administered tests. Mayor Bloomberg has used the results from the state tests to deliver grades of A through F for schools and to determine teacher and principal bonuses. Last month, the mayor said Schools Chancellor Joe Klein would begin using the results from the students’ tests as a factor in decisions on tenure for teachers.

Mayor Bloomberg frequently cited the state tests during his campaign for re-election, and he had predicted that the city’s results on the federal exams would show “great progress.”

But who is going to remember what was said during a campaign?

Our education system is an embarrassment to all parents, and the rosy misinformation that it provides is proving even more harmful to children.

Still on fire, Phil

Health Care Failed Folk Musician Vic Chesnutt

By Phil DePaolo

Last October, the popular folk singer Vic Chesnutt played a show at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, a concert I’d planned on going to, but missed. Vic toured often so I figured I would get to see him the next time he came to New York, in the spring or summer. But that will never happen. Vic Chesnutt died Christmas Day in Athens, Georgia, after committing suicide by an overdose of prescription muscle relaxants. He was only 45 years old.

Chesnutt was paraplegic since he was 18 years old. He was paralyzed after a drunk driving accident in 1983 which left him with only limited use of his arms. Yet against all odds, despite the paralysis, he was able to develop fantastic guitar skills and became famous for playing bass, rhythm, and lead in the same song with the dexterity of only two fingers. He was one of the greatest performers I’ve ever seen. He was a giant on stage.

Vic produced and released more than 16 albums, he recorded with such luminary musicians as Emmylou Harris and Michael Stipe, and he was the subject of a documentary, “Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt.” Vic also had a role in the Academy Award-winning film “Sling Blade.” He also performed at the Kennedy Center. He did all these things, even while confined to a wheelchair.

The American health care system would ultimately cost Vic his life, because Vic, who was able to earn some income, was not considered disabled, and was ineligible for Medicare. For two necessary surgeries his insurance paid $100,000, and he was billed an additional $70,000. He made payments until he couldn’t afford to, then the hospital demanded payment in full. Then it filed suit against him, which resulted in a lien on his house. The sheriff came by and tacked the notice on his door.

Vic was an outspoken critic of U.S. health care, and was well aware that he would need more surgeries for his condition. “I’m not too eloquent talking about these things,” Chesnutt said, “I was making payments, but I can’t anymore and I really have no idea what I’m going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die any day now. Right now, I need another surgery and I’ve been putting it off for a year because I can’t afford it. And that’s absurd I don’t want to die, especially just because I don’t have enough money to go into the hospital. But that’s the reality of it. You know, I have a preexisting condition, my quadriplegia, and I can’t get health insurance.”

“I have been amazed and confused by the health care debate,” he said. “There is no doubt about it; we really need health care reform in this country.

Jem Cohen, one of Vic’s closest friends, said in an NPR interview recently after his passing, “Vic was very open and honest about whatever state he was in. And so we knew that he was having some kind of a mental breakdown. There were, you know, bouts of terrible depression and insomnia, and in between him being his usual funny and smart Vic. But this was serious, and it was clear to people, and people scrambled to get help for him. And he was actually quite open to it. He was open to help. And so for people to think maybe he rejected that or just simply wanted to kill himself, I don’t think that’s right, personally.”

“He tried to get better, and the people around him tried to help him,” said Cohen. “There was a local nonprofit health care center that tried, and a lot of steps were taken right away. But he was in a serious crisis, and when it came to dealing with a certain level of crisis, in my opinion, the system failed him. I mean, there were limits to what the emergency options were in his city. For one thing, there used to be a psych ward at the hospital and there isn’t anymore. And then, you know, there were bureaucratic tie-ups and things are always made harder for people in wheelchairs, and so on. In the course of that struggle, Vic took an overdose of the prescription pills, the muscle relaxants that he had to take every day, which he’d taken for many, many years. You know, and that’s what happened.”

Michael Stipe added, “My understanding of Vic’s insurance was that it only covered catastrophic conditions or emergency kinds of situations, and Vic would wait and wait and wait and wait until he couldn’t take whatever compounded things were going on with his body. And then he would be taken to the emergency room, at which point his insurance would kick in and pay for part of the cost. But I think that these compounded other issues and other problems that he had, and made it very difficult. And as Jem said, we have a system in this country that completely—absolutely and completely—failed him as a person, and I think fails so many people.

On December 22, Vic was going to be admitted as an inpatient at a private psychiatric care center, according to longtime friend Erica McCarthy. Vic was about to be picked up for the facility when the center called to report their van’s handicapped lift was broken. Vic was asked if he could give the facility three days to resolve the complication. Around 11 p.m. that night, it is believed he swallowed the pills, and, on Christmas Day, after being in a coma two days, Vic died. “That’s the big tragedy of Vic’s death,” says McCarthy. “He was seeking help and he was rejected.”

Chesnutt admittedly attempted suicide three or four times when he was in his 20s. Jem Cohen said, “Vic’s death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some cliché downward spiral. He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a desperate search for help. The system failed to provide it. Rest in peace, Vic, I’m sorry U.S. health care failed you.”

I’m sorry too, Vic. It’s a shame you could not get the help you needed. I hope our system can some day learn to provide all Americans with dignified health care.