NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLY COMMITTEE ON CITIES
CITY SUMMITS REPORT:
About Assemblymember Scott Stringer
Assemblymember Scott Stringer, a native New Yorker and a product of the New York City public school system, was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1992 after more than a decade of political involvement and neighborhood advocacy. Stringer represents the 67th Assembly District on Manhattan’s West Side.
Stringer is the Chair of the New York State Assembly Committee on Cities and serves on the Education, Higher Education, Housing, and Judiciary Committees. Stringer is also a former Chair of the Real Property Taxation Committee, the Assembly Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee and the Task Force on People with Disabilities. Stringer is also a member of the Assembly Task Force on Women’s Issues.
Stringer has released the following research reports since 2002:
Assemblymember Scott Stringer prepared this report with the help of his staff:
Alaina Colon, Policy & Communications Director
For additional copies of this report, please contact Assemblymember Stringer’s office by phone: (212) 873-6368; Email: email@example.com.
|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
New York’s 62 cities have been and continue to be crucial to the growth and prosperity of New York State. Yet, prior to this report, the State had never put forward its own agenda to help support the optimal growth of New York’s cities. The urban agenda outlined below grew out of the first ever series of City Summits initiated by the Assembly Committee on Cities (the Committee) to reach out to urban leaders in New York's 62 cities. The recommendations contained in this report are based on the testimony presented to the Committee from various city officials and community organizations regarding successful strategies they have employed to make their cities more successful and the strengths and weaknesses of existing State programs. By adopting this platform of groundbreaking initiatives, New York State could empower, strengthen, and enrich its cities, thereby reinvigorating the entire state.
All of New York’s urban areas, from Red Hook to Rochester, face significant challenges including pollution, sprawl, the lack of affordable housing, and the need to generate jobs and tourism and to cultivate small businesses. According to a 2004 report by the Regional Plan Association, 29 percent of households in the New York metropolitan region currently pay more than one third of their income on housing - one of the largest proportions in the nation.
Just under half (43.7 percent) of New York’s population lives in cities, whereas only 11.8 percent of the nation’s population lives in cities. Out of 62 cities, one third have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher. Twenty-one percent of the State’s cities have an unemployment rate of seven percent or higher. Eight cities have a median household income of $25,000 or lower, including Utica, Ithaca and Syracuse. These trends highlight the need for a statewide plan to acknowledge the vexing as well as varying needs of New York’s urban areas.
The relationship between New York’s cities and their suburbs is evolving, as long-established suburbs take on certain urban characteristics. A 2004 report by the Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy states that suburbs are experiencing the same problems as cities and that fiscally stressed cities and mature suburbs share an interest in needs based state aid and in smart growth policies to slow suburban sprawl. Despite their interdependency, New York’s cities have yet to band together with suburbs to form a common agenda. Rather than compete for the same resources, the two should work together.
The lack of attention to the needs of urban centers is not just a phenomenon of New York State. Although some cities such as New York and Los Angeles serve as the economic engines of their regions, in recent decades many smaller cities throughout the nation have seen their economic bases lost as industries move overseas or to nearby suburbs. As these cities struggle with a plethora of challenges, no wide-reaching strategy has been adopted to address these issues. In fact, the United States Conference of Mayors called for an action plan for our nation’s cities during the most recent presidential campaign.
It is time for New York State to build an urban agenda for our urban regions and to act as a model for the rest of the nation in addressing the unique concerns of metropolitan areas. This report pioneers this effort by proposing a comprehensive strategy for urban revitalization that is based on the voices of urban leaders throughout New York.
|ASSEMBLY COMMITTEE ON CITIES URBAN AGENDA|
The following recommendations were gleaned from testimony presented by elected officials, advocates and business leaders and form the backbone of the urban agenda that has been developed by the Committee Chair. To make this new urban agenda a reality, the Chair will advocate for implementation of the measures described herein and stands ready to assist cities in supporting these local initiatives.
-Implement Cultural Zones legislation (2005: A.3433 Morelle).
-Restructure the packaging of New York State Tourism advertising to include regions, several cities offering different attractions.
-Promote the history of New York State to attract history enthusiasts and families to the State, similar to cities such as Boston & Philadelphia.
SMALL BUSINESS ASSISTANCE:
-Offer performance based state operating support to smaller Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) who lack the support of a healthy tax base.
-Encourage cities to utilize the dispute resolution mechanisms promoted by the New York State Unified Court System Alternative Dispute Resolution Office (ADR) as an option prior to binding arbitration.
UNRESTRICTED AID TO LOCALITIES:
-Ensure the Executive Budget maintains revenue sharing formula monies as an unrestricted, stable, predictable source of aid to cities.
-Provide targeted tax credits toward mortgages for homeowners within designated areas.
-Enact the Affordable Housing Bond Act of 2006 (A.1487 Stringer).
-Implement Assembly Smart Growth package.
-Implement legislation to study and report on the application of pesticides in urban areas.
-Enact an historic home rehabilitation tax credit.
-Utilize waterfront development projects as a new way to package waterfront areas of the state to increase tourism opportunities.
- Promote cultural based tourism.
SMALL BUSINESS ASSISTANCE:
-Plan strategic downtown development in order to provide assistance for physical and technological infrastructure improvements.
Provide assistance to localities in establishing BIDs as well as integrating community residents into BIDs.
-Implement short-term job creation programs.
-Assist in the maintenance and improvement of cultural institutions.
WITNESS FINDINGS AND TESTIMONY
Below are the key initiatives utilized and recommended by witnesses to reinvigorate our urban areas and strengthen the urban engine of New York State. NOTE: All quotations below are from witness testimony presented at the City Summit Hearings. Transcripts of the summits are available from the Assembly’s Public Information Office.
New York State has many historical, natural, and man-made attractions. From the Niagara Falls to 42nd Street and the beaches of Montauk, the State of New York has sights for tourists from across the world. In fact, the State’s total domestic travel market ranks fourth among all states according to the NYS Department of Economic Development. It could be argued that tourism is one of the most profitable industries in New York State. The economic impact of tourism in New York City alone in 2002 was $21 billion, according to New York & Co. The NYS Department of Economic Development credits tourism for supporting $13 billion in salaries for New Yorkers every year.
In order to capitalize on the tourism opportunities throughout the cities of New York, the State must consider serious investments and planning. Witnesses at all four City Summits, including elected officials and representatives from cultural institutions, testified that cities must attract more tourists and build upon existing attractions.
Albany Mayor Jennings discussed the need for creating a market for regional visitors in order to attract tourists to Upstate and Western New York. In his testimony, the Mayor acknowledged that effective promotion of the Capital Region as a tourist destination would require more than singularly promoting the City of Albany. It would also mean the promotion of Saratoga and nearby areas, "It’s about the whole region," he said. Acknowledging the region’s rich history, its unique art institutions and the Saratoga Race Track, the Mayor pointed to the "multi county successes" to be found throughout the area. Using the Capital Region as a model for success, it is important for the State to create new ways to advertise upstate cities by including not only one city, but an entire region. Such a strategy would convince tourists to visit a region comprised of several cities through which they could travel and experience the unique aspects of each.
From the State’s significant role in the Women’s Suffrage movement to the link it provided in the Underground Railroad, New York’s rich history is reason alone for tourists to venture within its borders. Major cities throughout the United States, including Boston, MA, and Philadelphia, PA, have seized upon their history as a tool to promote tourism at home. New York has the same opportunity, by promoting its history through city walking tours, as offered in Boston, or by restoring and advertising historical landmarks throughout the State. It is imperative that the State’s tourism agencies advertise the history of the State in order to bring history enthusiasts and families to New York.
The City of Buffalo found its opportunity by initiating a citywide campaign to promote the history and rich cultural assets that have long been overlooked. In 2003 the city launched the Buffalo Niagara "Summer Long Sensation." A joint effort by the cultural, business and hospitality communities, the city showcased its art galleries, museums, artist studios, concert halls, theatres, architecture and historical assets to generate tourism at home. The event received attention from around the State as well as the country. By combining cultural attractions, downtown art and historic sites, the city recharged itself by capitalizing on existing assets rather than trying to create something new.
Cultural Institutions play a vital role in attracting tourists to a city. Christine Miles, Director of the Albany Institute of History and Art, testified regarding the 1999 renovation of the Institute. The City of Albany was able to finance $1 million toward an $18 million capital campaign. Since the reopening of the newly renovated Institute in September 2001, the Institute has been able to host larger exhibitions. According to Ms. Miles, a recent 10-week exhibition at the Institute attracted 18,000 visitors, 36 percent of whom were tourists from across New York State, and generated over $900,000 in direct local spending, over $48,000 in state sales tax and $35,000 in local taxes. This translated into $1 million in local economic impact over 10 weeks as a result of the initial $1 million bond given by the City. By assisting the Institute with its capital needs, the City will reap benefits from the expansion far and above their original investment.
Updating and improving cultural institutions can lead to future economic stimulus for a city. Whether through financial support, or other means, the assistance to cultural institutions is generally repaid to a city via tourism dollars and increased tax revenues.
A significant way the State can promote regional tourism and enhance the arts across the State is by designating cultural zones throughout New York State. These zones, as proposed during the 2005-2006 session by Assemblyman Morelle (A.3433), would allow local governments to identify specific areas, or zones, within a given locality for the growth and development of an arts community. The program would provide tax incentives to property owners and cultural institutions within the zone to encourage reduced rents for artist housing and gallery space. The bill also encourages arts development through the creation of the New York State Capital Fund for the Arts. Funds would be awarded to qualified arts investment projects by the locality and would require a partial match by the locality. The Committee Chair has long recognized the educational, intellectual and economic contributions of a strong and healthy arts community and would support future legislation to foster thriving arts communities across the State.
Many of New York State’s urban areas, including the cities of New York, Buffalo and Albany, have significant waterfront property in need of development. Albany recently completed the construction of a pedestrian bridge to connect people to the Hudson River waterfront and has proven that an accessible waterfront attracts both residents and tourists. In Buffalo, the natural beauty of Niagara Falls draws people from across the country and the world. Preservation of waterfront access to the general public is essential to catalyzing tourism and improving the quality of life for city residents.
At the Albany Summit, Cohoes Mayor John McDonald discussed the need for a balance of waterfront development and preservation. Despite the development of a country club and condominiums on the City’s waterfront, the Mayor acknowledged the need to preserve public access for the residents of Cohoes. New York State must not overdevelop its waterfronts, yet a balance is needed to allow for housing, business, and tourist attractions to co-exist. In New York City, the redevelopment of the Brooklyn waterfront is a major rezoning project of the Bloomberg administration. Coupling housing, business, and tourist attractions on the waterfront can infuse new life and money into an area. In February 2004, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi issued a report on the borough's economy noting the redevelopment occurring in Brooklyn, and indicated that a combination of recent private, City and State investments offered promise for continued redevelopment in Brooklyn’s future. The State must continue to assist other cities in their redevelopment of waterfront property.
The State should prepare a master plan for the redevelopment of city waterfronts, which focuses on community involvement, strategic planning and the pooling of available resources. Attractive waterfronts are often promoted to attract tourists, and such a plan would contribute to the notion of regional tourism. Whether the objective is to promote travel through the cities along the Erie Canal or the cities spanning the Hudson, advertising the entire region can package the waterfronts into an exciting journey through several cities. The Committee will continue to work with cultural communities across New York Sate to develop strategies to promote culture-based tourism.
Urban economies rely on small businesses to provide jobs and tax revenue, as well as goods and services to residents. Whether the city is large or small, there are many challenges facing small businesses in New York State. From the need to offer government assistance directly to small business to the need for modernizing infrastructure and building space, city and state governments must work in cooperation with small businesses in order to maximize their potential and their positive impact on cities. Witnesses, including elected officials and economists, offered ideas and solutions to small business assistance.
As our State, specifically New York City, attempts to rebound from the job loss associated with the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent recession, new jobs must be created immediately to spur growth in the economy.
James Parrott, Deputy Director and Chief Economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute, summed up the great loss of jobs during the recession and noted that no industry was spared job losses. While several long-term development projects have been proposed to spur job growth, no immediate job creation has been undertaken. Mr. Parrott testified regarding a proposal called "Liberty Jobs," put forth by the Labor Community Advocacy Network to Rebuild New York (LCAN). This proposal calls for the use of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) funds to jump-start job creation. In a two-pronged approach, funds would be used to subsidize wages of private companies affected by September 11, 2001, in order to maintain existing employees or enable them to expand their workforce. The second prong would be to create jobs in government agencies fully subsidized by the LMDC grants. The Committee Chair believes this program could bring immediate unemployment relief to New York City, and recommends seeking other revenue sources to be dedicated to the program.
Downtown areas are the centers of life and commerce of cities, and it is imperative that government approach downtowns with a long-term plan for success. Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership, testified to the need for strategic planning. Rather than addressing the benefits, needs, and pitfalls of an individual project - including whether a project fits in with the downtown scope - projects need to be examined together. Building individual projects, be they parking garages or housing projects, without looking at the whole picture is the common approach to planning in upstate cities, he said. Cities must attempt a bundled strategy to address the needs of small businesses and other development projects.
By planning for an entire downtown”s infrastructure, city governments and the State can better assist in the maintenance of building facades and continuous updating of information technology capabilities. A model program for building improvement can be found in the City of Cohoes as described by Mayor John McDonald in his testimony. The City created a 50 percent investment match program to assist property owners with building façade rehabilitation costs, up to $2,000 a parcel. Even with a small start up investment, the benefits will be seen in the Cohoes downtown for years to come.
Small businesses must have access to necessary information technology capabilities in order to be viable in the Internet age. Downtowns must provide Internet wiring capabilities and access throughout buildings being offered for commercial use. Assemblymember Paul Tonko and City of Amsterdam Mayor John Duchessi exchanged thoughts regarding the need for ensuring the wiring of upper floors of downtown buildings. Unlike in larger cities, many small cities in New York have low-rise office space that has not been modernized to meet today's business demands. Witnesses testified that obstacles such as these could be better addressed when taken as a whole, rather than individually project by project.
Creation of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in New York State dates back to 1975 beginning with the Syracuse Mall in Syracuse, NY. BIDs are special assessment districts aimed at promoting, strengthening and, at times, reviving business-oriented areas within a municipality. A special assessment is levied on the properties within the boundaries of the BID; this assessment is collected by the municipality and directed toward capital improvements and enhanced services for the BID. Originally intended as a tool to combat the exodus of city residents and businesses to neighboring suburbs, the presence of BIDs continues to assist cities in promoting downtown areas, encouraging business development, and remaining competitive with suburban malls.
Christopher Burke, President of the Lark Street Business Improvement District in Albany, noted that successful revitalization of cities and downtown areas relies in part on stable neighborhoods and the families who choose to live there rather than in the suburbs. This characteristic is a key priority of the Lark Street BID that boasts a unique membership of both commercial and residential property owners from the community. The BID also has worked diligently to recruit and maintain businesses that compliment each other. A majority of the businesses are independently owned and operated. A second unique trait of the Lark Street BID is that only 25 percent of the BID's annual budget is funded through assessment revenue, with the remaining 75 percent acquired through proactive fund raising. In addition to promoting and marketing member businesses, the BID provides an array of services to its members, including beautification, street cleaning, and public safety services. The BID also serves as liaison between the community and city government.
Last year, the Lark Street BID created the Lark Street Walk and Watch program. Similar to a traditional neighborhood watch, the BID works to ensure a safe environment for residents and visitors by recruiting volunteers to patrol the street, and to report incidents to the police. To further make the Lark Street community a safer place to live, work and visit, the City of Albany completed a major reconstruction of Lark Street last year that involved new, more pedestrian friendly sidewalks, enhanced street lighting, and cobblestone intersections to better maintain the flow of traffic.
The Lark Street BID’s efforts have been rewarded with an increase in property values and an increase in the number of families moving into the neighborhood. The recent construction work has made the area more inviting and attractive during the day and night. Its dedication to the community has resulted in a brighter, more hospitable neighborhood that can only continue to prosper in the coming years.
A representative of another Capital Region BID spoke of the difficulties faced in his attempts to revitalize the once vibrant downtown area of Schenectady. Although some BIDs throughout the State enjoy the support of a healthy tax base, others struggle to provide services with much less financial support. The Cities Committee recognizes that an organization’s diligent efforts can be hampered by a small budget, and will consider the suggestion of providing performance-based operating support to smaller, under-funded BIDs.
A look at the Albany Downtown BID provides another strong example of local effort to reinvent a community while attracting new and repeat visitors to the area. This fall, the Downtown BID launched a campaign known as "1609." Capitalizing on the year in which Henry Hudson first stopped at Albany, the BID recruited area restaurants to participate in a weeklong promotion during which three-course menus were offered at the fixed price of $16.09. The effort brought new people to downtown restaurants and served as a treat for veteran customers as well. Altogether the restaurants served nearly 7,500 guests. For many residents, the promotion week made dining out more enticing and encouraged people to explore the quality dining options available in the downtown area.
Although initially created by the State Legislature, as of 1989 municipalities have had the power to establish BIDs independently. BID formation is now controlled by an affirmative vote of the affected businesses and residents and confirmed by resolution of the local legislative body. The Committee, however, continues to provide assistance to localities in the early stages of forming a BID. Speaking with individuals active with local BIDs, the Committee will continue to seek ways to better assist BID development and growth.
Local governments, including cities, are subject to binding arbitration proceedings before the Public Employees Relations Board, as per the Civil Service Law. Binding arbitration is triggered when contract negotiations with local police, fire unions and district attorneys reach an impasse. Binding arbitration is a method of dispute resolution involving one or more neutral third parties whose decision is binding. This form of dispute resolution is applied to employees in certain jobs who are prohibited by law to strike.
Throughout the summits, the Committee heard testimony on the perceived hardships caused by decisions made by arbitration panels. Several officials and representatives of local governments, including Mayor Matthew Driscoll of Syracuse and the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM), argued that the current binding arbitration procedure does not adequately consider a particular municipality's ability to pay. They emphasized that this issue should be given a higher, if not the highest, priority. They claimed that current binding arbitration criteria are insensitive to cities with tight budgets and that arbitration panels should be required to consider the unintended consequences an award determination may have on a municipality, including subsequent layoffs, deficits, tax increases, service cuts, or additional borrowing. In addition, these officials and representatives noted that certain arbiters fail to recognize the cost-of-living contrast between downstate and upstate communities.
To begin to address some of these issues, The New York State Unified Court System created an Alternative Dispute Resolution Office (ADR). The ADR provides a variety of dispute resolution mechanisms intended to prevent litigation and works with judges and court administrators to develop and to implement dispute resolution programs throughout the State. In addition to non-binding forms of arbitration, the ADR promotes mediation, neutral evaluation, facilitation and Summary Jury Trial, which allows for the option of a non-binding verdict. The Committee Chair supports the efforts of the ADR and encourages localities to fully utilize these alternative mechanisms in order to avoid situations leading to binding arbitration.
In 1979, the Legislature enacted the Revenue Sharing Program which directed eight percent of total State tax collections to municipalities each year. The State determined revenue distribution from a statute-based formula that considered population, full value per capital and personal income; the money provided is to be spent at the municipalities’ discretion. The funding provided to local governments under the Revenue Sharing Program has not been formula driven since 1980, but has been based on a fixed amount of money appropriated within the annual State budget.
Local officials, as well as the New York Conference of Mayors, have argued for the revision of the Revenue Sharing distribution as a means of relieving a ballooning municipal property tax burden. Several municipalities are near their constitutional taxing limits, such as the city of Yonkers, which has exhausted 96 percent of its tax limit. On average, New York cities have exhausted more than half of their taxing limits. To resolve this problem, local officials continually request increases in unrestricted aid. Although at one time certain cities were able to dedicate a portion if not all of their unrestricted aid allotment toward investment projects, many cities now rely on this revenue stream to meet recurring operating expenses.
Several cities, including Syracuse and Rochester, also argue that the amount of funding they receive from the Revenue Sharing Program is either less than what they received in the past or is disproportionate to the aid provided to other cities of comparable size. At present, two-thirds of cities are receiving less State aid than they received a decade ago. This has hampered New York cities’ ability to respond to the growth in the demand for municipal services. As health insurance and pension costs rise and cities struggle to comply with State and Federal mandates, unrestricted aid must be a reliable source of revenue for localities and must be maintained at a rate that allows cities to remain competitive.
The economic health of numerous upstate cities has deteriorated significantly over the past two decades. Many cities suffer from a declining tax base that threatens reductions in important municipal services, such as local security measures, neighborhood-based quality of life efforts, maintenance of recreation centers and community libraries, economic development initiatives, and needed infrastructure improvements.
The controversy surrounding the current revenue sharing formula has not been formally addressed since 1998, when the Legislature negotiated the State Budget through an open conference committee process. At that time, The General Government & Local Assistance Subcommittee was focused on creating an equitable solution to revenue sharing distribution, in order to assist cities, towns and villages throughout the State with their growing financial responsibilities. The Legislature presented the Executive with a budget that provided a 2 percent revenue sharing increase, totaling $11 million, to help reduce or cap local property taxes. Although the members of the bipartisan Conference Committee were committed to the revenue sharing increase, that portion of the New York State Budget for Fiscal Year1998-1999 was vetoed by Governor Pataki.
This year, as part of the 2004-2005 State Budget agreement, the Legislature proposed to include the six cities currently excluded from the Supplemental Municipal Aid category-Auburn, Corning, Lackawanna, Long Beach, Rensselaer, Watertown and White Plains. Supplemental Municipal Aid is another unrestricted aid category that provides money for cities to spend at their discretion. An additional $4.2 million in Supplemental Municipal Aid was appropriated, giving an allocation of $700,000 to each of these cities. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed this measure.
At the Syracuse City Summit, the New York State Conference of Mayors stressed the long overdue need to strengthen the revenue sharing formula. The Committee understands the importance of an equitable, unrestricted aid formula as a means to provide municipal property tax relief and to prevent an undesirable property tax increase. The Committee will continue its work to ensure that revenue sharing remains an unrestricted, stable and predictable source of State aid.
The need for quality, affordable housing was a theme throughout the Summits, was cited by city officials and residents, including Buffalo Councilmember Antoine Thompson and Michael Irwin of the Onondaga Cortland Madison-Board of Occupational Cooperative Educational Services (OCM-BOCES), as one of the key obstacles in countering urban sprawl and reviving many of our neglected downtowns. City officials and representatives at the hearings cited the challenge of providing much needed affordable housing in their choice between renovating an older housing stock rather than facilitating new construction, as is often possible in the surrounding suburban areas. Often, the ability of suburban areas to accommodate new construction encourages people to gravitate away from the city to where more housing options are available.
Some urban areas provide down payment assistance for individuals of all income levels as a strategy to encourage people to return to the city. Through its research, the Committee has learned about the Albany Home Store and its down payment assistance program. The Home Store is a "one stop" facility for interested homebuyers, offering budgeting assistance, educational classes for first time homebuyers, home maintenance training, landlord training, credit counseling, home repair funding assistance, and several other related services. The program is the result of a private-public partnership involving the city, Fanny Mae and HSBC Bank and aims at attracting homebuyers to the city. Individuals who do not own residential property have access to the program and may use an interest-free, ten-year loan for a down payment and closing costs in an amount of up to eight percent (or $12,000) of the home purchase price. Within the last two years, the program succeeded in bringing 55 families to the city and has encouraged several former suburban residents to invest in Albany.
During the Summits, the Committee heard suggestions from municipal officials and representatives for creating additional owner-occupied incentives for multiple dwellings to prevent unwanted absentee landlords. Homeownership among minorities is also a key concern of several city officials. Buffalo’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation enabled 44 new minority homeowners and helped the city put homes back on the tax roles and new children into the school system. New York City has made homeownership possible for low-income families through the successful public-private partnership behind the Tenant Interim Lease Program. Homeowners become key contributors through their interest and involvement in the community-involvement that can stabilize a neighborhood.
In addition to the affordable housing challenge, many cities mentioned the increasing burden of abandoned properties and vacant lots. Certain cities are looking for a fresh approach to this problem and seek new strategies for tackling abandoned properties. At the hearing, suggestions were made to increase disincentives for property owners to hold on to vacant and deteriorating properties, such as higher fines for problem lots or encourage existing homeowners to annex vacant lots, which would result in better maintenance of the vacant parcel and provide an upgrade in property value to the existing homeowner.
Cities in transition from a thriving industrial past have many sites in need of demolition. The aging housing stock of several cities is in such poor condition that many units must be demolished to clear space for new housing. Vacant buildings create many problems for cities, including hazardous conditions and underutilized space. Lynn Kopka, Director of City Planning for the City of Troy cited these issues during her testimony, as did Amsterdam Mayor John Duchessi. However, demolition is an expense many cities cannot afford to bear. While the rehabilitation of buildings should be the first approach, some structures are in need of more invasive work, as discussed between the Chair and Mayor Duchessi.
The State should consider providing relief to localities for the financial burden associated with demolition costs. In 2005, Assemblymember Sam Hoyt introduced the Revitalization Projects and Infrastructure Renewal program (RePAIR) bill (A.4645). This legislation would provide $5 million to cities for demolition work and would allow cities to apply for reimbursement for up to fifty percent or $100,000 of costs associated with demolition projects. This proposal is a first step in providing cities with the relief they seek for an aging building stock. The Committee Chair also supports Assemblymember Tokasz's bill A.876, introduced in 2005, which would allow municipalities to issue bonds to finance demolition of privately owned buildings. Although cities are currently authorized to bond the costs of demolition of municipally owned buildings, they are often saddled with abandoned and neglected privately owned structures as well.
A successful city depends upon the ability and desire of the individuals who live and work there to contribute and ultimately to enhance the quality of life of the urban community. Therefore, the need for quality, affordable housing is essential. Among those who testified in Syracuse, NY included a representative of the mental health community Michael Irwin of OCM-BOCES, who noted the link between the absence of affordable housing and the inability of certain residents to participate fully in the community. In addition, employment, social, medical and other services must be accessible.
The Committee is exploring the concept of targeted tax credits toward mortgages for homeowners residing within certain census tracts, as suggested by Mayor Alan Cohen of Ithaca, and legislation to authorize the local option to implement temporary property tax reductions for homebuyers in a targeted area, such as a downtown. The Chair of the Committee understands the integral role quality and affordable housing plays in the health of a city and will continue to explore methods to assist cities in realizing their goals for safe and available housing.
This year, Chairperson Stringer has reintroduced landmark legislation (A. 1487) that would facilitate the construction of nearly 100,000 units of affordable rental and ownership housing throughout the State. This bill would direct the State to authorize a $1.5 billion tax-exempt bond act ($150 million annually for ten years) to finance new affordable housing construction and to subsidize existing construction and rehabilitation programs without imposing new taxes on State or City residents, thus establishing a dedicated fund for affordable housing financing and rehabilitation programs. Corporate franchise taxes already generate approximately $5 billion annually for the State’s general fund and this plan would designate $150 million annually for ten years (a total of $1.5 billion) from the State general fund and dedicate these funds for the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing.
The plan would also incorporate several measures to substantially reduce costs for private and not-for-profit developers. All sales taxes for construction materials would be eliminated. Currently developers must work out deals with a municipality to take advantage of a municipality’s sales tax exemption; an automatic exemption would eliminate unnecessary steps and provide immediate relief. Loans from the newly created dedicated housing fund would be made to developers at an extremely low interest rate in order to help defray costs and to ensure that repayment would not be entirely dependent on a project’s income.
This legislation addresses a recurring theme throughout the Summits regarding the lack of affordable housing throughout cities in New York State. By passing this legislation, the State can make a crucial step forward to encouraging affordable housing starts.
The Committee Chair recognizes that promoting smart growth strategies is one of the most effective ways to revitalize New York’s cities, many of which developed during the turn of last century and contain many important late 19th Century residential, industrial and public buildings. Witnesses at the Summits proposed diverse smart growth strategies such as investing in central business districts, improving transportation options, revitalizing older historic structures and investing in cultural institutions. Witnesses from all over the State confirmed that these strategies are working in their communities.
Elizabeth Berry from Save Our Libraries in Buffalo, was adamant that the only way to revitalize her city is to focus on providing a good quality of life to its citizens, especially children, of which libraries play an important part. Libraries, equipped with computers and Internet service are also helpful in addressing the digital divide which several witnesses indicated was a significant problem for many upstate communities. To keep neighborhoods from deteriorating, she explained, neighborhood services and assets must be preserved, including schools, libraries, community center parks and necessary businesses, such as groceries. In order to keep people in urban areas, municipalities must provide quality services (water, utilities etc.) at a reasonable price.
Quality of life concerns determine if populations remain in our cities. Several witnesses echoed the need to keep facilities in urban areas, describing schools and educational infrastructure as "push factors," or issues that can push populations out of cities and into the suburbs. Mayor Masiello of Buffalo added that one way to address sprawl is a city’s ability to recapture and to reinvigorate many of our older buildings, especially in the downtown corridor. The benefits offered to businesses under the Empire Zones Program have been used successfully, but more, he added, is needed.
Ms. Berry also urged the Committee to focus on ways to attract business to downtowns and to improve public transportation. According to a Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council study, 40 percent of adults have no access to a car in Buffalo. As the city grows outward, urban residents without access to transportation are unable to access jobs in the new suburbs. Further development of existing downtown business districts would create jobs closer to where workers live and slow down the damaging effects of sprawl.
Smart growth strategies are not just about downtown revitalization. New communities are beginning to mimic the best quality of life attributes available in cities. For example, Aron Mair, of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation described the Town of Clifton Park as the epitome of sprawl, but also as the perfect example of what homeowners are searching for even as they leave the city for the open space and privacy of the suburbs: a sense of community. As he explained in his testimony, town residents play an integral role in decision making concerning the nature and development of the community and they even have a website to stay connected. By constructing something as simple as a town green, Clifton Park developers are able to foster a sense of community that is often lacking in far-flung suburbs. In order to encourage the spread of smart growth projects, the Committee Chair supports the implementation of the Assembly’s Smart Growth package.
In Buffalo, the Pierce - Arrow Buffalo Transportation Museum, opened in 2001, is located on the Erie Canal in a downtown area filled with former industrial and manufacturing sites. The museum is situated on the original industrial site of the Pierce - Arrow Company, which at its peak in the first third of the 20th century was the top employer in Buffalo. The museum has successfully reinvigorated the downtown area around it and is ready to expand. Currently, the museum is constructing a winged Tydol station that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The filling station and planned greasing station will not be working facilities, but the museum intends to use the space for exhibits, banquets and meetings and hopes the attractions will draw tourists’ attention to the impact of the automobile industry on America.
Other museums across the State are also employing this winning strategy. The DIA Museum has been responsible for an art and antique renaissance in a dying waterfront city, Beacon, NY. The museum is located on the Hudson in the former printing facility for Nabisco. Several other witnesses cited support for cultural institutions as critical. The irony as pointed out by Mayor Masiello of Buffalo is that while cultural institutions provide a real sense of excitement for those living in cities, they are often first to get cut or lose funding, as budget problems arise.
Unfortunately, due to the heavy manufacturing that occurred throughout the State, many former industrial sites cannot be redeveloped safely without some level of environmental remediation. Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates spoke about the need to have a program to deal with these brownfields, abandoned or underused industrial or commercial sites where reuse is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination. Brownfields are especially common in New York’s older industrial cities and towns, and in communities where residential, commercial and industrial land uses exist in close proximity. Brownfields pose risks to the health and economic redevelopment of many areas. As manufacturers continue to leave Upstate, they are leaving behind dangerous and abandoned sites right in the middle of many communities.
There are thousands of brownfield sites throughout the State and Buffalo. In fact, according to testimony from Jones, about 40 percent of the land in that City is comprised of contaminated properties. Urban communities, particularly low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are especially hard hit. In 2003, the Assembly passed landmark Brownfield legislation (Chapter 1 of the Laws of 2003) providing incentives to companies willing to remediate and redevelop brownfield sites across the State.
A variety of incentives can be used to spur development in the urban core. Kate Wood from Landmark West! argued that tax incentives were needed to spur private investment in historic neighborhoods. The redevelopment of historic neighborhoods throughout the State would combat sprawl, revitalize older urban cores, and reinforce tangible links between communities and place. The Committee also heard from Daniel Mackay, Director of the Public Safety Preservation League of NYS at all four of the City Summits. Mr. MacKay presented the benefits of an historic home rehabilitation tax credit program to communities of all shapes and sizes. These groups, as well as the Chair of the Committee, support legislation similar to the Neighborhood Reinvestment Act proposal of 2004 (A.1134-A Canestrari) which would provide a 15 to 25 percent state income tax credit to owners upgrading historic residential properties. The benefits of such programs have been documented by 21 other states that have similar programs. The result is overall tax base growth, stronger communities and a means to discourage families from moving to the suburbs. The Committee Chair supports the enactment of an historic home rehabilitation tax credit.
While many people, especially in New York City, consider the whole of upstate to be a pristine wilderness, environmental challenges abound. According to the EPA, in addition to New York City, the Capital District, Poughkeepsie and Buffalo are located within counties in non-attainment for ozone. Non-attainment is the failure of a county or region to meet Federal EPA standards for certain air pollutants. In the City, NY County is in non-attainment for the amount of particulate matter, mostly from diesel trucks, in the air. According to Jason Babbie of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) this status quo is problematic from a public health perspective, but also negatively impacts the growth of a city.
Mr. Babbie further explained that the over-use of pesticides in urban areas is a huge environmental health issue. Non-agricultural pesticides comprise the majority of pesticides used here is New York. Insecticides used in indoor settings compound the exposure risk for urban residents. A recent Columbia University study uncovered a link between indoor exposure to insecticides and reduced brain circumference in children. The very tools being used to tackle everyday problems, such as roaches, are compounding health problems, like asthma, for city dwellers.
NYPIRG supports non-toxic pest control approaches, which have proved significant in reducing roach populations without using toxic pesticides. In previous years, NYPIRG has called on the State Legislature to pass legislation similar to the Urban Pesticide Bill of 2004 (A.1110-C Wright). The bill would establish a statewide review board to look at the issue of urban pesticide use. The bill has passed the Assembly and the Committee Chair strongly encourages its adoption.
The Summits were a success. The Committee thanks those who participated at the Summits by providing the invaluable testimony that has shaped our urban agenda. As the 2005 Legislative Session unfolds, the Chair hopes to maintain open lines of communication that were established during these hearings in order to address the challenges that our urban areas continue to face. The Chair will work with the appropriate Assembly Committees to see that important legislation to improve our cities is considered and acted upon. A dialogue concerning urban area revitalization must continue and the Chair will uphold his commitment to providing cities with the support they need.
In the spring and summer of 2004, the Cities Committee held City Summits throughout the State to open a new line of communication between the State Legislature and New York’s sixty-two cities. The Committee sought testimony describing efforts made by local governments to strengthen and to enrich New York’s cities. The Committee recognized ongoing efforts to invigorate local communities through tourism, small business growth, home ownership and other areas, and the goal of these hearings was for the Assembly and city officials to share information regarding the strengths and weaknesses of existing programs, as well as inventive initiatives designed to empower our cities. These hearings also explored ways in which the State Legislature can continue to support New York’s cities in their efforts to develop and to grow through new and innovative legislation.
The following issues represented the primary focus of the public hearings. In their testimony about these topics, urban leaders addressed the extent to which the State plays an integral role in their efforts and the ways in which the State can better address your concerns and assist you in the future.
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