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January 10, 2010

Are backroom deals par for the course?

The Journal News, Op-Ed
By Debra West

The controversy over payments made to insure a key vote for approval of Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill project in Yonkers leads watchdogs to wonder if backroom deals are the way to go:

Federal prosecutors accused Annabi, the former Democratic majority leader whose term ended in December, of taking more than $166,000 in payoffs to vote "yes" on two development projects. One development, the so-called Longfellow apartments project, was small and remains unstarted. The other, Ridge Hill Village, is the biggest retail, residential and office complex that Yonkers has seen to date.
"This is really an isolated incident," [Geoff] Thompson said. Though government skeptics may assume that backroom deals are par for the course, it is not the case. "If it were common, it would be in the headlines every six months, and it's not."

Thompson points out that long before the indictments, other developers looked to Ridge Hill and its closed-door process as an example of how not to proceed. Forest City Ratner seemed to shut out the public, he said. Thompson does represent a group of developers — including mega-builder Louis Cappelli — who have been at work for years on a redevelopment plan for downtown Yonkers; he said the partnership has sought community input at every juncture.

If prosecutors are to believed, the $630 million Ridge Hill development was denied a fair and honest hearing; who can say how the controversy would have otherwise unfolded?

Terry Joshi is president of the watchdog group Yonkers Committee for Smart Development and a frequent critic of the many tax incentives and zoning changes developers wrest from local governments. The indictments notwithstanding, she doesn't think that backroom deals and bribes are the way business is regularly done. "The real giveaways happen right out in the open," Joshi said. "They take votes in public, in the light of day, and still just basically give developers whatever they want. That's the problem."


NoLandGrab: Forest City's political connections and a few well placed donations are usually all that's required to secure the megaprojects outside of meaningful public scrutiny.

Posted by lumi at January 10, 2010 4:13 PM