Last night’s public hearing on the proposed NASCAR track on Staten Island turned into a melee. Union members, many of whom were apparently shipped in by the developer, shouted down and physically intimidated community people who had come out to voice concerns about the project. New York 1 showed video last night of one particularly huge union guy throwing Staten Island Councilmember Andrew Lanza into a headlock and wrestling the microphone out of his hands. The scene looked more like a drunken bar fight than a community meeting. NY1 hasn’t put the video on its web site [Update: Here is the NY1 footage. Pretty incredible], but ABC 7 caught some of the action and put it online. The NYPD rolled in and shut down the meeting after just a half an hour.
For anyone who has attended official public hearings on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards project, the scene looked familiar: Real estate developer buses in project supporters. Supporters shout down and intimidate community members. The democratic process and opportunity for thoughtful community input is undermined.
In my personal politics I have always sympathized with labor. My grandfather was so proud of getting beat up by New York City police during a 1930’s strike that he had a formal portrait taken of himself with his head wrapped in bandages and his arm in a sling. But these days, I’m finding it difficult to support New York City’s unions as their members stomp public meetings and prevent well-meaning, thoughtful community people from participating in New York City’s development processes. Increasingly, it seems that the building trades unions serve as little more than muscle for New York City’s big developers and corporate interests. That’s definitely not what Grandpa Abe got his head bashed-in for.
It is also worth noting that last night’s ruckus started as Councilmember Lanza began talking about his community’s traffic and transportation concerns.
If, as Robert Yaro wrote in the Gotham Gazette, New York City is going to add another one million people in the next 25 years, development, construction, and increased density is essential and inevitable. Yet, virtually every big development project across the city is being fought by neighborhood and community groups on the grounds that any new development will bring too much traffic.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Urban development doesn’t have to be the enemy of neighborhood quality of life. But until New York City puts in place a thoughtful, long-term, community-oriented plan for reducing motor vehicle traffic and improving more efficient modes of transportation, New York City’s growth is going to be bogged down by neighborhood-level battles like the one we saw on Staten Island last night. So, what is it going to take for Mayor Bloomberg to notice that his administration’s development agenda, and ultimately, his legacy, is being hindered by a lack of any sort of cohesive, citywide transportation strategy? Perhaps we’ll get an answer in June when Mayor Bloomberg plans to make a major speech on land-use and transportation.