September, 2014

Curb corporate influence on public schools – ZAKIYAH ANSARI AND AUDREY SASSON

The Walton family, majority owner of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has spent more than $1 billion since 2000 to undermine public schools across the country — pushing “reforms” that move us toward a privatized K-12 system run by entrepreneurs and investors rather than educators.

With a new school year, New Yorkers can expect to see a back-to-school profiteering effort by the Waltons and their Wall Street allies. We believe they will try to get the state to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate across New York. In 2010, the state raised the cap on charters from 200 to 460.

We expect this effort will build on what the Waltons did just a few months ago. During state budget negotiations, the Walton Family Foundation funded ads to promote co-location of charter schools in public schools — a practice that divides communities. Before more Walton-funded ads appear, it’s crucial for New Yorkers to understand this: Just as Wal-Mart’s claims about respecting workers cannot be trusted, neither can the Walton family’s statements of concern for our children be taken at face value.

New Yorkers deserve to know what the Waltons mean when they talk about education “reform.” They want to apply the business model of Wal-Mart to public schools: more corporate control, more profit for companies and lower-paid workers. We fear their goal is the Walmartization of public schools.

Over the last five years, the Waltons have pumped millions into expanding publicly funded, but privately operated charter schools in NYC. But they have not spent a single dollar lobbying to increase investments in resource-starved public schools in our state.

Low-income students and students of color in public schools are disproportionately affected, as their education is destabilized and treated as the least worthy of investment.

Yet, even as the state fails to fulfill its constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools, the Waltons seek to divert much-needed tax dollars to charter school operators. New Yorkers want strong public schools in all communities and access to the highest-quality education for all children.

Unfortunately, more ad campaigns and advocacy from the Waltons will only leave our students, families and communities worse off.

Zakiyah Ansari is advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education and Audrey Sasson is director of Walmart-Free NYC. Both are advocacy groups partly supported by labor.

Astoria Cove Puts Freshman Council Member in Spotlight

As the 2.2-million-square foot Astoria Cove proposal winds its way through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, Council Member Costa Constantinides, a Queens Democrat who represents Astoria and parts of Woodside, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, laid out how he would judge the planned mixed-use development for Commercial Observer during an exclusive tour of the 8.7-acre-site overlooking Pot Cove on the East River yesterday.

The first-term council member whose vote will inform that of his colleagues once the project reaches the City Council later this fall dished on his hopes for a new ferry route from the site to Manhattan and spelled out how he’s pushing for the project to maintain his native Astoria’s character while changing the neighborhood for the better, but he’ll have to navigate turbulent waters among the many parties that wield influence in the city’s land use proceedings while managing the always-tense affordability component of the proposal.

“This is an opportunity; if done correctly, it’s going to transform the waterfront, but it has to be done correctly,” Mr. Constantinides, 39, said as he greeted constituents at the nearby Astoria Houses public housing complex. He added, “It’s definitely a process. We’re talking with everyone to make sure everyone has a voice and that the developers hear that voice.”

An investor group called “2030 Astoria Developers LLC” that includes the Long Island City-based Alma Realty Corp. has already promised public benefits from the development and adjusted its proposal after Community Board 1 voted 44-0 against the proposal on June 24 in an advisory ruling. The developers upped their affordability ratio to 20 percent from an earlier proportion of 17 percent and committed to funding new public open space elsewhere in the area in addition to the 83,846 square feet of public open space already planned for a waterfront esplanade and new streets approaching the cove. They also aim to build a 456-seat elementary school and 109,470 square feet of retail sites, including a 25,000-square-foot supermarket.

The developers’ representative in the ULURP negotiations, Howard Weiss of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, notes that the developers are now utilizing a city program that allows them to build out a total of 1,723 units while requiring that at least 20 percent of the floor area–about 345 units–be affordable. The development group has declined to use any public financing to subsidize the units but they agreed to increase the overall number if they request the public financing, Mr. Weiss said, expressing confidence they would eventually win Mr. Constantinides’ approval.

“It’s been very productive working with him,” Mr. Weiss said. “We met several times with him and we’re in constant communication. We expect, when this reaches the Council, it will have his full support.”

Mr. Constantinides agreed that the developers have shown willingness to compromise thus far in the process. But though he noted that possible new grocery stores both at Astoria Cove and at Lincoln Equities Group’s adjacent 2,644-unit Hallets Point development that passed ULURP last year would be the neighborhood’s first new supermarkets in two decades, the former Council staffer cited preserving the neighborhood’s commercial context as a key indicator on his potential support.

“We’re asking that the retail space fits within the small business character of what Astoria is,” said Mr. Constantinides. “We don’t want to see something like a Walmart move in that sort of sucks the small business character out of the community.”

The lawmaker noted that the project would expand the street grid and open a portion of the waterfront that’s now cut off by the industrial businesses that still dominate the project site. But he wants to enhance the coastline further through a commuter ferry or at least an eco-dock where fishing enthusiasts from Astoria Houses could cast lines and local schools could hold educational programs. A weekday route connecting a new terminal at Astoria Cove to new installations on Roosevelt Island, and in Long Island City, Midtown and Lower Manhattan would cost $2.7 million in annual subsidies and $23 million in capital costs, the city Economic Development Corporation found in a 2013 study. But the quicker commute from the site that’s a 15 to 20-minute walk from the nearest subway would be a worthwhile investment, Mr. Constantinides said, noting that last year’s Hallet’s Point rezoning commissioned a $500,000 feasibility study of a new ferry dock on the site.

“I’m committed to bringing a ferry here,” he said, pointing out a tattered landing pier that juts into the East River. “A ferry transforms this peninsula. Nobody has made a credible argument that the ferry is not a good idea.”

Rather, the number of affordable units on the site has represented the most contentious issue of the rezoning negotiations thus far. The Real Affordability for All Coalition, a group of almost 50 advocates and unions, is calling for at least 50 percent of the new housing to be affordable, a level that Mr. Weiss says would make the project unfeasible for the developers. But the coalition, whose members contend that the site’s potential 421-a tax abatement would allow the developer to pay for the affordable units, is making its presence known at each stage of the rezoning, such as a recent press conference where Mr. Constantinides appeared alongside the leaders of the movement.

“I get the sense that he has the same goal that we do–to keep the Astoria area intact,” said Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “If you’re going to build affordable housing with tax breaks then we need to get as much out of this as possible.”

Mr. Constantinides has thus far declined to focus on any particular number, though he notes the centrality of affordable housing to the debate.

“We’re looking to make sure there’s an appropriate number,” he said. “I don’t have a magic number. Of course 345 is better than 295, but I’m not saying there’s an end-all number.”

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in an email that the Administration is watching the process closely and noted the developers’ plans to build the affordable housing without the normal public financing for the units.

“This is the developer’s proposal, and it’ll take some time to determine how well what’s being proposed meets this community’s needs,” Mr. Norvell said. “But there’s no question we’re seeing a shift in the landscape when developers are willing to require themselves to build affordable housing and forego public subsidy for the required affordable component.”

With Queens Borough President Melinda Katz expected to submit her recommendations on Astoria Cove soon, the matter will then shift to a City Planning Commission hearing scheduled for Aug. 6 before the proposal moves to its decisive up-or-down vote in City Council this fall.

De Blasio: Walmart unwelcome in New York City

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that Walmart stores don’t belong in New York City, a sharp contrast to his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s position that the retailer creates jobs and would keep city shoppers from traveling to Walmarts in the suburbs.

“I don’t think it is a state secret that I am very uncomfortable with Walmart,” said de Blasio, who as a councilman and the city’s public advocate railed against the giant retail chain. “I have been adamant that I don’t think Walmart — the company, the stores — belong in New York City, and I continue to feel that.”

De Blasio was answering a question about a protest earlier in the week by labor unions and more than half the 51-member City Council over the company’s charity arm donating millions of dollars to local groups for items such as blankets for the homeless and food for the hungry.

De Blasio, who has previously denounced the company as a killer of good jobs that ultimately cost the government money to subsidize a low-paid workforce, took no position on whether the charities should accept the philanthropy.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer has been trying for years, without success largely because of council opposition, to gain a foothold in New York City. The company did not return a message seeking comment.

In 2010, Bloomberg said the company provides many entry-level jobs and he defended the retailer’s right to open in the five boroughs. “If you would do surveys in, for example, southeast Queens, people are going to Nassau County to shop at Walmart,” the former mayor said then. “If you do surveys in lower Manhattan, they’re driving over to New Jersey.”

Also Thursday, de Blasio made a pitch to Barack Obama to put his presidential library and museum at Columbia University, where he received his undergraduate degree, after he leaves office.

“I’ve certainly let the Obama team know that we are excited about the idea, that we would do anything that we can to be helpful to it,” de Blasio said.

Other contenders include Chicago, where the president spent much of his adult life, and Hawaii, where he grew up. Obama has expressed interest in relocating to New York after his presidency.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

City Council members rip Walmart’s charity of ‘dangerous dollars’

More than half the members of the City Council have fired off a letter to Walmart demanding that it stop making millions in charitable contributions to local groups here.

Twenty-six of the 51 members of the Council charged in the letter that the world’s biggest retailer’s support of local causes is a cynical ploy to enter the market here.

“We know how desperate you are to find a foothold in New York City to buy influence and support here,” says the letter, obtained by The Post and addressed to Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation.

“Stop spending your dangerous dollars in our city,” the testy letter demands. “That’s right: this is a cease-and-desist letter.”

Last week, Walmart announced that it distributed $3 million last year to charities here, including $1 million to the New York Women’s Foundation, which offers job training, and $30,000 to Bailey House, which distributes groceries to low-income residents.

Walmart, which has been thwarted by union-backed opposition for more than a decade, said the handouts “can make a difference on big issues like hunger relief and career development.”

The retail giant said its business agenda “aligns with supporting the local organizations that are important to our customers and associates.”

But Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called the donations “toxic money,” and accused Walmart of waging a “cynical public-relations campaign that disguises Walmart’s backwards anti-job agenda.”

Sources said activists will stage a demonstration Wednesday outside City Hall, tearing up giant, mocked-up, Ed McMahon-style checks from Walmart to prove their point.

A key bone of contention is the Waltons’ support of New York City charter schools. Since 2004, the Walton Family Foundation has funneled $16 million into the cause, including the DREAM Charter School, Village Academies and the Success Academy founded by Eva Moskowitz.

“We’re proud of the work they’re doing to transform the public-education landscape and proud to have played a small part in their success,” Walton Family Foundation spokeswoman Daphne Davis Moore said.

Walmart has raised eyebrows with its New York political contributions before.

As reported by The Post, former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz appeared to soften his attitude toward the company in 2011 after the retailer donated $150,000 to his summer Martin Luther King Jr. concert series.

In March, Walmart officials signaled a temporary retreat from efforts to open a New York City store after setbacks at a site in Brooklyn off the Belt Parkway.

Anti-Walmart Coalition Battling Big Box Store at Astoria Cove

They don’t want any bricks in the Wal.

An anti-Walmart coalition and a Queens councilman are announcing a campaign today to keep Walmart, the big box superstore, out of a proposed residential and retail development in Astoria, Queens. It’s not clear yet if Walmart, thwarted before from building in New York City because of its anti-union approach, is planning on an attempt to bring a store to the 2.2 million square foot and 1,700 unit waterfront and retail complex known as Astoria Cove.

Anti-Walmart forces, though, aren’t taking any chances.

“Workers, consumers, and local businesses in Astoria need a retail component that preserves the small-business character of our community. Astoria Cove should prioritize employers that meet the highest standards,” Councilman Costa Constantinides, the area’s representative, said in a statement to the Observer. “The retail component of Astoria Cove should help build entrepreneurship both inside the development and within the greater Astoria community.”

Mr. Constantinides already signed onto an open letter from various City Council members condemning Walmart for flooding the city with philanthropic dollars. The campaign against Walmart, known as Walmart Free-NYC, comes as Astoria Cove wends its way through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz is holding a hearing on the project today.

Walmart, which has locations bordering the city, tried and failed recently to bring a store to East New York in Brooklyn. Labor groups, along with Democratic elected officials, railed against the superstore chain for the relatively low wages it pays its workers and its drive to crush unionization efforts.

“Whenever Walmart enters a new community, it’s a huge loss for the people who live and work there. The retail giant has a history of killing good local jobs, undermining small businesses, restricting consumer choice, and paying workers poverty-wages. We won’t let Walmart destroy Astoria,” said Audrey Sasson, the director of Walmart-Free NYC. “The people of Astoria deserve better. Astoria Cove should only include responsible retailers with a track record of creating good jobs and treating workers fairly.”

The Department of City Planning recently certified Astoria Cove, a crucial component of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build 200,000 units of affordable housing, for review. The community board voted the project down, however, and the left-leaning City Council still needs to vet it.

Various liberal groups and coalitions, including Walmart-Free NYC, New York Communities for Change and Real Affordability for All, are hoping that Astoria Cove doesn’t lead to the further gentrification of western Queens, where real estate prices continue to rise. They want half the units below market rate, far more than the developer is pushing for, and higher wages for the workers on the project. The groups also want the developer to agree to not interfere with union organizing in exchange for workers agreeing not to picket or disrupt the flow of business.

A spokesman for Walmart slammed Walmart Free-NYC’s Astoria campaign as “another stunt.”

“We appreciate when our critics consider us as a good fit for a for a site in NYC, especially when you consider that a lot of the people that live in Astoria Cove are already Walmart shoppers, given they order online or visit our stores in Long Island to get the affordable prices they are looking for,” stated William Wertz, a spokesman for Walmart. “Unfortunately, this is just another stunt from a special interest to gain attention.”

De Blasio: Walmart unwelcome in New York City

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that Walmart stores don’t belong in New York City, a sharp contrast to his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s position that the retailer creates jobs and would keep city shoppers from traveling to Walmarts in the suburbs.

“I don’t think it is a state secret that I am very uncomfortable with Walmart,” said de Blasio, who as a councilman and the city’s public advocate railed against the giant retail chain. “I have been adamant that I don’t think Walmart — the company, the stores — belong in New York City, and I continue to feel that.”

De Blasio was answering a question about a protest earlier in the week by labor unions and more than half the 51-member City Council over the company’s charity arm donating millions of dollars to local groups for items such as blankets for the homeless and food for the hungry.


PHOTOS: Bill de Blasio | NYC mayors


De Blasio, who has previously denounced the company as a killer of good jobs that ultimately cost the government money to subsidize a low-paid workforce, took no position on whether the charities should accept the philanthropy.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer has been trying for years, without success largely because of council opposition, to gain a foothold in New York City. The company did not return a message seeking comment.

In 2010, Bloomberg said the company provides many entry-level jobs and he defended the retailer’s right to open in the five boroughs. “If you would do surveys in, for example, southeast Queens, people are going to Nassau County to shop at Walmart,” the former mayor said then. “If you do surveys in lower Manhattan, they’re driving over to New Jersey.”

Also Thursday, de Blasio made a pitch to Barack Obama to put his presidential library and museum at Columbia University, where he received his undergraduate degree, after he leaves office.

“I’ve certainly let the Obama team know that we are excited about the idea, that we would do anything that we can to be helpful to it,” de Blasio said.

Other contenders include Chicago, where the president spent much of his adult life, and Hawaii, where he grew up. Obama has expressed interest in relocating to New York after his presidency.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Astoria Cove + Walmart?

This weekend we ran across a very provocative article in the New York Observer:

Anti-Walmart Coalition Battling Big Box Store at Astoria Cove

Well, that certainly got my attention (and I’m sure that of many others reading), as the topic of Walmart is a fire starter in NYC. Full disclosure: I do not support Walmart setting up shop in NYC.

As I read further into the article, I learned that Walmart moving into Astoria Cove is not a done deal by any means:

It’s not clear yet if Walmart, thwarted before from building in New York City because of its anti-union approach, is planning on an attempt to bring a store to the 2.2 million square foot and 1,700 unit waterfront and retail complex known as Astoria Cove. Anti-Walmart forces, though, aren’t taking any chances.

But it was clear that the potential is there—big box stores could very well come to Astoria Cove’s commercial spaces, be they the more beloved Target, Trader Joe’s, and Home Depot… or the dreaded Walmart. Walmart is particularly troubling to some because their presence in a community can lead to similarly-oriented local businesses nearby to close, thus removing any competition, not to mention depressing wages, and for some their anti-union stance. East New York fought off Walmart not too long ago.

Our Councilman, Costa Contstantinides, was quoted in the Observer article:

“Workers, consumers, and local businesses in Astoria need a retail component that preserves the small-business character of our community. Astoria Cove should prioritize employers that meet the highest standards. The retail component of Astoria Cove should help build entrepreneurship both inside the development and within the greater Astoria community.”

One of the cherished elements of Astoria is the prevalence of mom and pop/indie businesses; many Astorians, both old timers and newcomers, love that aspect about the neighborhood. Sure, there are some big box stores, but they are confined for the most part to Northern Blvd, and the Costco on Vernon. This is not counting chain drugstores or supermarkets.

Audrey Sasson, who is the director of Walmart-Free NYC, said “The people of Astoria deserve better. Astoria Cove should only include responsible retailers with a track record of creating good jobs and treating workers fairly.” Other groups like New York Communities for Change and Real Affordability for All also reject the idea of Walmart moving into Astoria. William Wertz, a spokesman for Walmart, considers this outcry against Walmart in Astoria Cove to be simply a publicity stunt.

Walmart also claims that “the people that live in Astoria Cove are already Walmart shoppers,” an interesting statement since the development hasn’t even been built yet (though to be fair, perhaps he’s talking about the folks already living on this little peninsula, including the people from Astoria Houses). But Walmart is no doubt salivating at the idea of establishing a foothold in one of NYC’s most popular neighborhoods, our very own Astoria.

So what do you think? Is Astoria ready for Walmart? Is Astoria Cove going to be the perfect place for Walmart? Should they be outright rejected? We’d love to hear what you think—differing opinions encouraged. Leave us a comment or a tweet!