BY LAYLA LAW-GISIKO (Candidate, AD75 and Chair, Commuity Board 5 Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee | Penn Station is dark, for more than one reason. This week (March 13-19, 2022) is Sunshine Week—the week where we celebrate transparency and accountability in government. Open government is good government. Let’s bring sunshine into Penn Station!
Over the years, as I have been negotiating the Penn Station real estate project as a rep for Manhattan Community Board Five (CB5), I’ve found little reason to celebrate Sunshine Week. This gloomy pit of Penn Station has been the epitome of dark politics.
Back in 2020, when ex.gov Cuomo announced the Penn Station plan, I was invited to a special briefing on the matter. This was the first time that details of the plan were being presented by ESD, the state’s economic development agency, to a larger public. I expressed concerns and serious skepticism. The plan would bulldoze six city blocks and would shoehorn 10 supertall office towers in a one-block radius. Eminent domain, zoning overrides, massive upzonings, and urban renewal gave me great pause. These are not concepts that resonate well with our community.
Expressing concerns and skepticism earned me an automatic denial for a seat at the table as CB5 rep on a Community Advisory Committee (CAC). ESD leadership was blunt: I would not be allowed into these meetings because I had been critical of the plan. I was a trouble-maker. They wanted only “Yes People” at the table. They gave themselves the prerogative of picking the community board’s rep. Community Boards should be able to select whoever they want to represent them. And I certainly had all the legitimacy and credentials, as the Chair of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee of CB5 and a veteran in urban planning matters who worked for five years on the East Midtown Rezoning. These credentials seemed to further fluster ESD.
CB5 tried to plea, advocate, and defend, but ESD would not budge. It was only when the media started to scrutinize ESD’s decision to shun me that they changed course.
In May 2021, I was finally allowed to join a newly formed Community Advisory Committee Working Group, known by its acronym CACWG, a revamped group made up of 40 or more stakeholders. I was relieved and satisfied that CB5 would finally have proper representation, but I soon realized it would not be so easy. Although the weekly meetings were part of an official public process and were run by a state agency, they were deemed confidential. We were told that the Sunshine Law did not apply. Despite repeated demands to allow transparency, ESD put the whole group on gag order and I was not allowed to even report on the matter to my committee, as CB5 follows the Open Meetings Law and that would have violated the gag order.
The 12 weekly meetings brought to light a great deal on information but I, along with my colleagues of CB5, was not allowed to share any of the documentation. Presentations were slapped with confidential mentions. It is only after the materials were FOILed by ReInvent Albany, the good government watchdog, that ESD was forced to publish it.
Thanks to continued tenacity, more is known about this dreadful plan. But we continue to be in the dark about the funding scheme. Last week, 15 state senators of the NYC delegation, driven by Sen. Krueger, the chair of the powerful Finance Committee, called for ESD to halt the plan and urgently provide full transparency.
I agree and I am also calling on ESD to release data and specific information that led to the conclusions reached by their consultants. I am especially concerned about Ernst & Young, a financial consultant hired jointly by ESD and Vornado to produce a financial analysis of the Penn Area towers. Consultants hired by public agencies should not also work for a private entity meant to most profiteer from the project they are consulting on. It’s tantamount to the Surgeon General asking the tobacco companies to hire a consultant to produce a report on cigarettes’ harm.
Equally problematic is the level of political contributions given by Vornado executives and their relatives to both ex.Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Hochul. It raises questions: Did that influence the plan? Why was Steve Roth, the CEO of Vornado, appointed by then-Gov. Cuomo to a Penn Station Task Force in 2018 and subsequently a Penn Area plan that only benefits Vornado was pushed with full force, (while entirely ignoring the transit needs)? Finally, why have the dozen FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests submitted more than six months ago and related to the Penn project not been addressed yet?
Wouldn’t it be great if Governor Hochul and ESD CEO Hope Knight took the opportunity of Sunshine Week to finally give us cause to celebrate? They should provide the transparency and accountability that are synonymous with good government and all the financial information related to the Penn Area Plan with no further delay.
Governor Hochul has made repeated pledges about being transparent. “On my first day in office, I pledged to turn the page on the old ways of Albany and restore New Yorkers’ faith in their government,” she said in a March 14, 2022 press release. She should put that into practice with ESD because if anything deserves sunshine, it is spending $6-7B on “bringing the light” into Penn Station.
In addition to being a Democratic candidate for the NYC Assembly District 75 seat being vacated by the retiring Richard Gottfried, Layla Law-Gisiko is also the current Chair of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee of CB5 and a member of the Penn Area Community Advisory Committee Working Group.
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