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Ex-Buildings boss schemed to empty fire victim shelter to get a luxury condo, Manhattan DA says

The Gothamist, David Brand, September 15, 2023

As New York City stared down an unprecedented rise in homelessness last year, its buildings commissioner was allegedly scheming with a deep-pocketed developer to clear fire victims from a Rockaway Park emergency shelter in exchange for a discounted luxury condo nearby, Manhattan prosecutors charged Wednesday.

Eric Ulrich, the former commissioner of the Department of Buildings, faces 16 counts of bribery and conspiracy stemming from an array of alleged pay-to-play schemes benefiting associates with business before the city.

In indictments unsealed on Wednesday, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg accused Ulrich, a Republican former councilmember whom Mayor Eric Adams appointed to lead the city’s buildings department, of trading favors like rezoning approvals and expedited permits in Queens for a luxury apartment discount, Mets season tickets and a tailored suit, among other expensive gifts.

Amid the influence-peddling allegations, one indictment accuses Ulrich of attempting to orchestrate the eviction of men and women from 52 single-room occupancy apartments on Beach 116th Street, while simultaneously negotiating with developer Mark Caller for a steep discount on a condo across the street, court records show. Ulrich also allegedly helped Caller win approval for a rezoning on the block. The failed removal effort took place shortly before Adams appointed Ulrich, a political ally and adviser with no management or buildings experience, to lead the Department of Buildings.

The unsealed indictment details pieces of an ongoing conversation between Ulrich and Caller as they attempted to oust the residents in the early spring of 2022.

Both Caller and Ulrich maintain they did nothing wrong.

Ulrich neither responded to a voicemail nor answered the intercom when Gothamist buzzed his unit on Thursday. A neighbor exiting the condo complex said he had not seen Ulrich for around two weeks.

The two Rockaway Park buildings face each other in a stark “Tale of Two Cities” contrast. On one side of the street, the weathered four-story residence features shared bathrooms and microwaves located in the hallways. The luxury condo complex across the way — where Ulrich allegedly leased a condo for half the going rate with an option to count the rent toward a discounted down payment — rises eight stories and features patios, a penthouse and a ground-floor gym.

While residents pay up to $1.5 million for condos in the building known as One Sixteen, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development rents rooms across the street to house people displaced by fires, floods and vacate orders issued by the DOB — the agency Ulrich once led.

Jaime Valle, 77, said he moved into a unit in the building two weeks ago after the DOB ordered him out of an illegally converted basement apartment that he rented in Kensington. Valle said the Red Cross put up in a hotel for a few weeks before HPD transferred him to the Rockaway Park building.

Read More: The Gothamist

City Council approves 5-year permit for MSG, shortest extension in venue’s history

The Gothamist, Stephen Nessen, September 14, 2023

The City Council approved a five-year extension to Madison Square Garden’s permit on Thursday, which allows the venue to operate above Penn Station.

It’s shortest license ever given to the venue — and is a signal that lawmakers are questioning whether it should remain atop the country’s busiest transit hub. The renewal comes as the MTA is moving ahead with plans to redesign Penn Station.

“We’re setting a clock that will help bring all the stakeholders to the table to fix Penn Station now,” Councilmember Erik Bottcher said at Thursday’s Council vote.

The Department of City Planning had recommended a 10-year permit extension for the Garden — but the City Council’s zoning committee last month cut its length in half. The committee also slashed a recommendation to mandate public space upgrades to the neighborhood around the venue.

The Council’s vote on Thursday calls on MSG to come up with a “traffic management plan” that helps reduce truck traffic in the neighborhood.

“The five-year ‘clean’ permit is still too generous a deal for MSG and its owner, James Dolan,” said Rachael Fauss, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit good government group Reinvent Albany. “The Council’s weak agreement fails to require MSG to cooperate with the MTA’s reasonable requests for space for Penn Station upgrades, leaving transit riders in the lurch.”

Read More: The Gothamist

Joint Press Conference By Politicos Turns into Debate over Penn Station Plans

Chelsea News, MICHAEL ORESKES, September 13, 2023

Congressman Gerald Nadler, Borough President Mark Levine, and City Council Member Erik Bottcher had heralded their Sept. 12 press conference as the official unveiling of a jointly endorsed new plan for Penn Station and Madison Square. But that’s not how it turned out. MTA Chairman Janno Lieber was also a surprise guest, but his presence was not meant as an endorsement of any new plan. 

You would expect a decision as big as rebuilding Penn Station to drive a big debate. What you wouldn’t expect is for government officials to conduct that debate with each other at a joint news conference on Eighth Avenue.

But that is more or less what happened in the latest baffling turn in the long saga of what to do with the busiest, and arguably the worst, rail station in North America.

The odd encounter began when key Manhattan officials, lead by Borough President Mark Levine, Representative Gerald Nadler and Council Member Erik Bottcher, called a news conference to demand a new bidding process to consider the demolition of the Theatre at Madison Square Garden to make make way for a grand Eighth Avenue entrance and train hall.

They were apparently motivated to hold this news conference by frustration with Governor Kathy Hochul, who promised to conduct an open competition for renovation plans but does not seem to have done anything since to get the MTA to expand its thinking to include demolishing the theatre, which the MTA says would be a waste of taxpayer money.

“Think Boldly,” Representative Nadler urged the MTA. “While most Penn station passengers come from east of Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue really, we are also insisting today that we must have a grand entrance on Eighth Avenue.”

They held the news conference on the sidewalk at Eighth Avenue and 32d second street so cameras would show as backdrop the grim façade of the theatre, which one architect described as hanging like a carbuncle off Madison Square Garden.

“What were they thinking leaving us with this blank wall,” asked Levine, who answered his own question by suggesting that when Madison Square Garden and its appended theatre, originally known as the Felt Forum and then the HULU theatre, were built in the 1960’s, the far West Side of Manhattan was far less developed than it is now and drew little focus. “The West Side can no longer be an afterthought,” said Levine.

The elected officials did not have to worry that the MTA, which is overseeing the reconstruction plans, would get their message. The chair, Janno Lieber, was standing next to them. He showed up unannounced, but not to embrace the plan to buy and demolish the theatre.


Racism by Design: The Building of Interstate 81

ACLU MAGAZINE, Jay A. Fernandez , September 7, 2023 

The I-81 project, completed in 1968—and Syracuse remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the highest concentration of poverty among communities of color, and the highest rates of lead poisoning in children. This was by design.

David Rufus was just a toddler when the bulldozers rolled into the streets of his Syracuse, New York, neighborhood in 1960. As part of the country’s interstate highways surge, city officials wanted to extend I-81 with an elevated viaduct that would cut right through the 15th Ward, where nearly 90 percent of Syracuse’s Black population lived. Protesting locals were ignored, and the razing of homes, churches, and businesses resulted in the displacement of more than 1,300 families, including Rufus’s. Over the next 50 years, the 15th Ward community suffered in every way possible—jobs, housing, schools, and public health plunged while crime, pollution, and poverty spiked.

“I’ve lived in this community all my 64 years,” says Rufus, who’s lost several family members to respiratory illness. “I’ve seen the move from a very vibrant and interactive community of people of color to a community that has been shunned and overlooked and broken down.” The I-81 project was completed in 1968—and Syracuse remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the highest concentration of poverty among communities of color and one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in children. The viaduct still physically separates the poorest and wealthiest communities, and the city’s Black population has been harmed for generations.

This was by design.



(Resident) Paul Wilcox, September 5, 2023


Essence Development and Related Companies say that when they take over Fulton and Elliot Chelsea Houses the tenants will have new upgraded apartments and the same rights they have now. The developers don’t have one example where privatizing or demolishing buildings kept tenant rights, or bettered living conditions. This is because there is none.

Demolition means many NYCHA tenants don’t come back

The Legal Aid Society warns that the plan to completely demolish all buildings on the Fulton and Elliot-Chelsea campuses, replace them, and build thousands of market rate units would “lead to permanent displacement of resident families.”  The lawyer group is so concerned that it is demanding that NYCHA withdraw its request to demolish. 

Public housing tenants are most likely to be permanently replaced when their homes have been demolished before they are replaced. Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Houses was completely demolished in the 1990s. Despite promises, only 20% of the original tenants ever returned. When public housing complexes were torn down in New Orleans the tenants didn’t return. 


Layla Law-Gisiko: How The Old Penn Station Got Demolished

(Layla Law-Gisiko) Layla Law-Gisiko, September 3, 2023

Numerous advocates, critics, members of civic organizations have stated with various levels of vociferation and on assorted tunes, that demolishing Penn Station was one of the worst acts of modern vandalism, and building an arena directly on top was terminally stupid.

In hindsight, we know it was a monumental mistake to construct Madison Square Garden on top of Penn Station. This week, at a subcommittee meeting of the NY City Council, Council Member Bottcher who represents the district where MSG is located stated: “At this time, the Council cannot determine the long-term viability of an arena at this location”. 

As the MSG/Penn Station saga continues to be written, let’s look at what folks were saying sixty years ago, and what they have said during those six decades.

Beware the “residue from a Caligulaean invasion” and admire MSG President’s foresight as he, himself, predicted that MSG would be a tear-down building fifty years after its construction. But the award for most accurate assessment goes to architectural historian Carl Condit.

The Care(ful) Work of Abolishing Prisons

YES!, Amanda Alexander & Deanna Van Buren, August 29, 2023

How to kick our national addiction to prisons

Our society is addicted to punishment. For the last 50 years, we have expanded police forces, passed laws criminalizing poverty, and incarcerated people for longer and longer periods of time. People returning from prison often find themselves shut out of housinghigher educationjobspublic benefits, and other opportunities for the rest of their lives. 

This investment in policing and prisons hasn’t made us safe. According to a 2020 study published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 40% of violent victimizations were reported to police that year. As Danielle Sered writes in her 2019 book Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, “More than half of the people who survive serious violence prefer nothing to everything available to them through law enforcement.” We all deserve to live in communities where our basic needs are met, where the conditions that lead to violence are minimized rather than responded to by armed police.

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis have taught us, abolition is a project of creation. To end criminalization, policing, and prisons, we need to build up life-affirming practices, institutions, and infrastructure that generate care and safety. 

We need to build care infrastructure on several levels: personal, interpersonal, and communal. We think of these as concentric circles, with the built environment—our homes, public spaces, schools, etc.—as a container for all of them. What we build up at the core radiates outward, and that, in turn, radiates back in, shaping new possibilities. Each circle shares the same center: a new set of core values. Unbuilding racist, patriarchal, ableist, and capitalist systems rooted in punishment and control requires starting with care, accountability, interdependence and connection, and an unshakeable commitment to the idea that no one is disposable.

At the personal and interpersonal level, building care infrastructure means developing new capabilities and practices. It’s learning how to have restorative conversations, give better apologies, rebuild trust after it’s broken, and move through conflict in constructive ways. It involves healing from trauma in community with others. One example of this is how the youth organization Detroit Heals Detroit fosters youth-led healing hubs for Detroit teens, creating space in schools for young people to heal trauma through breaking bread, writing, conversation, therapy, and song. 

It also means working with neighbors and co-workers to plan alternatives to calling the police. Examples include pod-mapping, created by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. Pod-mapping involves mapping our own networks of care and discussing them with one another. It can equip us to recognize the care and connection in our lives (and gaps that might exist) and make plans for activating those networks when we’re vulnerable. At the heart of these efforts is an awareness that relationships, community, and care keep us safe. 

At the community level, we need to build up local ecosystems of care through transformative and restorative justice networks; worker-owned cooperatives; community fridges for food-insecure families; unarmed response teams to support people with mental health needs; housing co-ops, food co-ops, and farming collectives; community land trusts; abortion and doula support; and mutual aid. There are many examples of such community-led projects cataloged online by One Million Experiments

It’s inspiring to think about what’s possible when efforts like these are knitted together at the neighborhood or city level. On Chicago’s South and West Side, the Just Chicago coalition is creating a solidarity economy landscape of community land trusts, worker-owned cooperative businesses, participatory budgets, and public banks. They aim to replace racial capitalism and the physical environment it has produced—shuttered buildings and vacant lots—with a nonexploitative local economy and safe public spaces.

As part of the shifts required for abolition, we need to dismantle and reimagine the physical world around us with a diverse range of life-affirming spaces. Architects and developers such as Designing Justice + Designing Spaces in Oakland are working with community organizers to create restorative justice centers, youth spaces, specialized housing and education projects, survivor spaces, mental health care and well-being centers, and diversion and re-entry spaces. 

Read More: YES!

The MTA’s $7 billion plan to renovate Penn Station got off to a rocky start

The Gothamist, Stephen Nessen, August 25, 2023

The MTA’s $7 billion plan to renovate Penn Station got off to a rocky start last month when the agency’s top officials boxed Amtrak executives out of a closed door meeting on the new design of the Midtown train hub, according to an internal letter from an Amtrak leader.

The July 17 letter was sent to Amtrak, MTA and NJ Transit leaders by Jennie Kwon, the national railroad’s vice president for capital delivery. The memo details a meeting MTA officials held with a firm hired to consult on the station’s redesign.

The letter — which was obtained by Gothamist through a source — states the July 6 “kickoff” meeting was not attended by or approved by Amtrak, which owns Penn Station.

Kwon wrote that she raised the issue with Jamie Torres-Springer, the MTA’s president of construction and development, the week after the meeting. The MTA executive responded by calling Kwon’s concerns “silly,” according to the letter.

Kwon wrote that Torres-Springer’s response had the effect of “further eroding my confidence in the MTA’s commitment to acting in the best interest of all railroads rather than exclusively their own.”

The MTA is leading the reconstruction project, despite not owning Penn Station. The work will affect areas used by Amtrak and NJ Transit.

MTA spokesperson John McCarthy dismissed questions about turmoil between the two transit agencies.

“We share a crowded space in Midtown Manhattan, and like many roommates we had a disagreement – and then we made up,” McCarthy wrote in a statement.

The letter says MTA Chief Development Officer Mark Roche “acknowledged the error” a day after the exchange between Kwon and Torres-Springer. But Kwon wrote she remained concerned about the MTA making “unilateral decisions” about Penn Station, and argued the agency is required to include Amtrak officials on all emails and letters regarding the planned renovations to the train hub.

Read More: The Gothamist

Let New Yorkers pick the new Penn Station: Put all the plans on display so the public can see them

Daily News, John Massengale, August 25, 2023

CNU NYC Chair John Massengale wrote this Op-Ed in the New York Daily News:

The powers-that-be at Pennsylvania Station have  new ideas about the future of the important gateway to New York. But look at what they do rather than what they say. When you go down the escalator between the NJTransit hub and the Long Island Rail Road concourse at Penn Station, you see a large, long drawing of the beautiful old station designed by McKim, Mead & White, tragically demolished in 1963. Underneath the drawing are the words “You Are Here.” Up is down, black is white, heaven is hell. We wish we were at the old station.We can have that station back again. On June 26, Gov. Hochul, Amtrak, and the MTA not only confirmed plans for the station to go ahead: they simultaneously put out a call for architects and engineers to send in their designs and ideas.There are four plans for Penn Station publicly circulating, including drawings and engineering studies from ReThink Penn Station, of the ReThink NYC Studio that proposes rebuilding McKim, Mead & White’s masterpiece.More ideas will come in. New York State and Penn Station should hold an exhibition and let the public comment on what they want.

Continue reading at the Daily News

Keep Madison Square Garden on a tighter leash: NYC should only grant MSG a special permit for three years

NEW DAILY NEWS, Liz Krueger, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Tony Simone

“It is absolutely essential for us to fix Penn Station and build a modern, world-class transit hub that centers on the needs of transit riders and puts safety first. Ideally, MSG should relocate to facilitate a total transformation of Penn Station.”

As the members of the Legislature who represent the Penn District, we urge New York City to reject Madison Square Garden’s special permit application to continue operating its arena in its current location in perpetuity. The application is currently pending before the City Council.

In June, the three railroads that operate in Penn Station — Amtrak, the MTA, and NJTransit — concluded that MSG is incompatible with the transit hub on which it sits. The Compatibility Report issued by the railroads confirms what every commuter already knows: “MSG’s existing configuration and property boundaries impose severe constraints on the station that impede the safe and efficient movement of passengers and restrict efforts to implement improvements.”

Transit advocates, elected officials, and community members agree — the busiest train station in the Western Hemisphere should not be hampered by an arena that causes safety hazards on the platforms and prevents us from building a station that adequately accommodates commuters and visitors from around the world. However, if New York City ultimately decides to grant a special permit, the permit should be for a maximum of three years and contingent on MSG cooperating with the railroads to make the arena fully compatible with the planned redesign of Penn Station.

In the more that half century since the destruction of the original Penn Station, MSG has created significant limitations on the station while occupying the space without paying property taxes. We are working in Albany to end unnecessary MSG’s property tax break which is saving it more than $42 million this year. The current station, originally designed for 200,000 daily commuter rail and subway users, was handling more than 650,000 daily passengers before COVID and is straining under the surge in traffic absent an increase in capacity.