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CB3 Committee Dubious of Proposed Changes to Basketball City Deal

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UPDATED 12/17, with additional remarks from CB3 member Anne Johnson.

The 20-year battle for the future of Pier 36 on the East River is taking another strange turn. At issue: an agreement between Community Board 3 and Basketball City, a private company that signed a long-term lease for a section of the pier three years ago. Last week, three community organizations went before  CB3’s parks committee, outlining changes to that deal they have independently negotiated with the company.  Committee members were not receptive.

In the original agreement, Basketball City owner Bruce Radler agreed to offer certain concessions to the community, including discounted court fees and access to public meeting rooms. The organizations, including GOLES and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, became alarmed when the community board’s “stipulations” were not included in the Pier 36 lease (city policy bars their inclusion).  They met with Radler on several occasions during the summer. Thursday night, GOLES organizer Joel Feingold walked the committee through a tentative, legally binding “Community Benefits Agreement.”

In most respects, it is not vastly changed from the deal CB3 negotiated. The contract – which Radler has not signed – is more specific about the discounted fees, and it requires Basketball City to pay employees a “living wage.”  The big difference is the creation of a “Community Oversight Advisory Board” to enforce the agreement.

Anne Frederick of the Hester Street Collaborative called the deal “an extension of what the community board has already done.”  Addressing committee members, she said it “emanates from your work.” But committee members did not see it that way.  CB3’s Lois Regan, asked, “Are you saying, by creating this advisory board, that the community board is not equipped to deal with whatever might come up?” She added, “you have stripped him (Radler) of his ability to be profitable.”

A community board member, Harry Wieder, said the arrangement “usurps the community board.”  Richard Ropiak, who was the chairman until a few weeks ago, questioned why Radler would want to sign the agreement. “He makes money with or without you,” he said. (UPDATED 12/17): In an email to The Lo-Down, CB3 member Anne Johnson added, “since when is an ad-hoc community group able to set itself up as an ‘advisory’ body to a company, not for profit, or any other organization.  It is the purview of that company, organization, etc. to set up it’s own advisory body if it wants one.”

Radler was not present at the meeting. According to CB3 members, he came to their office in the past several weeks, “looking for guidance,” and asking whether the neighborhood organizations were empowered to negotiate on CB3’s behalf.  Some CB3 members suggested the involvement in the negotiations of Harvey Epstein, a community board member and chairman when the original deal was worked out, could have given Radler the wrong impression. In an interview Friday afternoon, Epstein said it was made very clear he was representing a coalition of neighborhood groups, not CB3.

Epstein, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center, told me the “Community Benefits Agreement” became necessary because CB3’s “stipulations” are not legally binding. Responding to concerns that the deal circumvents the community board, he said CB3 would run the “advisory panel.”  It would coordinate a lot of details CB3 administrators don’t have time for, he said. In a separate conversation, Ropiak outlined his main objection to the proposal. Basketball City, he said, has a relationship with CB3. If there are to be changes to that relationship, the community board must play a role in that, he argued.

During the summer, Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, explained the decision to go beyond the community board: “They are not the only voice of this community. They have their role, and we respect that, and we have our role, and we have the right and the ability to go deeper if we choose to do that, and that is what we are going to do.

The dispute over Pier 36 dates back to at least 1992, when State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver successfully sued the city. The Dinkins administration had wanted to use the pier for parking and storage. The settlement required it to be “permanently dedicated for use by the community as a community recreation facility.”  Silver and the community board supported Basketball City’s relocation from the West Side. But some neighborhood groups, speaking for a large number of low-income residents on the waterfront, argued that a privately-owned, “pay-to-play” facility violated the spirit of the deal.

UPDATED 12/17: But Parks Committee member Anne Johnson, told The Lo-Down, “if Basketball City had not agreed to take the space over 15 years ago we would be stuck with a 450 car parking lot and a service station for the entire fleet of NY City cars.”

At the meeting, Committee members said they want to hear from Radler before moving forward. Basketball City will have 7 courts, a merchandise store, locker rooms, catering facilities and a 15-thousand square foot deck overlooking the East River. In the past, Radler has emphasized his company’s scholarship programs, community outreach events and strong ties to non-profit organizations helping inner-city kids.

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