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Questions to Ask in Public About Riverspace: So Ask Them

Riverspace is having a meeting on June 5 to present its plans for rebuilding the downtown. There has been some discussion about the Riverspace project on that Nyacksocialscene email group, some thoughtful some not, and I put out this piece to identify issues that I think need to be discussed in connection with this project.

I invite your comment, and I hope people attend this meeting at the Riverspace theater, which is at 7:00 PM.

> June 4, 2008
> All:
> This week, on June 5, 2008, the leadership of Riverspace Theater is going
> to make a presentation of the designs for its proposed rebuilding project
> for the downtown block. VIPs and other worthies who have seen the plans
> say they are stunning,incredible, superlative [or, pick your adjective].
> The basic design apparently creates cross-streets intersecting in the
> middle of the block, with Artopee way either eliminated or made into a
> continuation of Burd Street with real active streetscape, stores, etc.
> A new cross-street will cut across from a about Park Ave and I think
> continue on what is now a walkway in front of the Nyack Plaza. On this
> new grid, with some architect’s skill, you get new theaters, apartments,
> parking, parks, more or less the whole magilla, which would be a blessing.
> It includes a “green wall” that avoids blocking off the senior center.
> The existing downtown and the buildings on Depew were done, per the time
> and mindset of 1960s (white liberal) “urban renewal” in possibly the worst
> possible design and overall plan architecturally for a small village Like
> Nyack. Other things being equal (which may or may not bethe case here),
> no one in their right mind should object to a project (privately financed)
> to rebuild the downtown with an inspired architectural design. see fn1.
> The problem is that things are not “equal”. There are a couple of people,
> particularly Mr. Nugent and Mr. Weber, who have raised some critcal & real
> points about the whole Riverspace project. If you are reading this, you
> have probably read their emails. In one way or another, they object to
> the real estate “angle” on the Riverspace. In a nutshell, they want to
> know whether the real estate project is realy designed to serve the art
> project, or whether the art project is a pretext for the real estate deal.
> If this is too tame a rendition, you can read their emails directly. It is
> true that these issues concern many people. They raise real issues. fn2.
> The important question is how do we have a constructive public debate on
> issues, without the public discussion being a dysfunctional free for all.
> The underlying objection of one group of people who have protested the
> Riverspace downtown project is that it is a real estate project which is
> using the theater and arts project as an pretext to do big development,
> who will pay for it, how will it get screwed up, and what can folks do.
> And, finally, is there a way to make that vision work, not get FUBAR’d.
> How do you get at those issues?
> I.
> One way to see if that claim has merit is to look at the Board of the new
> Riverspace entity, which recently spun off from the Friends of the Nyacks,
> but is a non-profit corporation. How so? A board of an arts
> organization which is dedicated to bringing BAM-quality (Brooklyn Academy
> of Music) arts center to Nyack should be loaded with heavies in the arts,
> finance and real estate who could exercise their heft to get things done,
> attract money for programming and physical (real estate) development. The
> measure of how ambitious the people putting the Riverspace project forward
> to the Village of Nyack are to create a BAM quality arts center would be
> if they had worked in the last two years to create a BAM quality board.
> Getting a top quality arts facility off the ground requires that kind of
> talent; it requires that people of that kind of talent are WILLING to get
> on board and use their much demanded skills, money and connections to make
> the creation of a top flight regional arts center a priority of
> Riverspace.
> I do not know much about the Riverspace Board, but people at the June 5,
> 2008 meeting should find out who is on the Board, and what efforts have
> been made to attract the big-time talent and leadership that RS will need.
> This is at least a preliminary litmus test: who runs the show; how
> powerful, enlightened, etc are they, & what is the arts part game plan.
> II.
> The second thing that may help us understand whether real estate or art is
> central in the game plan of the Riverspace backers is to look for the
> current plans or efforts being put in place to insure that the ARTS PART
> gets the attention and funding it needs now, now 10 years from now when
> the real estate is done (assuming the project does not go bankrupt first).
> [I do not want to imply that the arts part and real estate necessarily
> conflict, & they can be complinmentary (i.e, the existing old movie house
> sucks for any real sophisticated theater use, too many seats etc.]
> One thing that concerns me about any near-term undertaking by Rivespace to
> do a rebuild of the downtown lot, in the name of Riverspace, is that any
> such project may create a risk that the real immediate needs of the
> Riverspace ARTS activities will be damaged, maybe to the point of being
> destroyed. At all the public meetings that I have attended the statement
> is made that the RS theater cannot continue to operate on a volunteer
> basis. I think virtually everyone working at RS is working for free.
> They say, and it has to be true, that the theater cannot continue in that
> volunteers-only mode, because that is not sustainable. Assume this is so.
> Then the next question is two-fold: how will a real estate development
> of such magnitude — which probably could not break ground for 5 years,
> given the complex background issues of finance, legal ownership structure,
> tax arrangements, village board and land use approval, all aggravated by a
> a newco non-profit with no track record to build the entire downtown! —
> possibly generate any funds that would arrive in time to help Riverspace
> get over its first birthing pains and become a viable arts institution.
> The question needs to be posed, but the answer has to be: the real estate
> development, if and when it gets going cannot provide any short term aid
> to Riverspace, and it could take years AFTER it is built for profits to be
> generated by the real estate development to help fund theater arts.
> This raises a real question whether the real estate development is geared
> to the arts center in name only, or if it realistically will provide $$$
> to Riverspace NOW, as well as over the next 2 to 5 years while Riverspace
> Everyone should ask on June 5, 2008: what is going to keep the ARTS PART
> up and running while the focus on activity is on rebuilding downtown and
> that activity takes xx% of everyone’s attention, and is the top priority.
> That seems to me the important question to ask now: if the real estate
> project BOTH diverts attention and resources from the current needs of the
> RS theater, and is targeted only to provide financial support YEARS from
> now, what exactly is the board or leadership of Riverspace doing NOW to
> get other monies into Riverspace to support programming and to support a
> staff that at some point is going to have to be paid real salaries, or RS
> will simply die. And we are not talking mere “survival”: we should be
> talking about establishing a reputation that rivals the best, like BAM.
> The whole idea of Riverspace was to have it be a big deal in the arts
> world, as well as to provide a resource for local community activities.
> That means that Riverspace has to have an energetic, and funded Plan B to
> generate grant money, to support creative programs, and to pay staff.
> It would seem to me that these kinds of “show me the money” activities
> need to have a prominent place in the agenda that Riverspace presents to
> the public, and it must be independent of the mega-development real estate
> [lanning, because that activity will suck up money like a 10-ton sump pump
> in a three part bathtub called Nyack, South Nyack and Upper Nyack.
> [This image may seem odd, but it reflects the fact that the leadership of
> Riverspace apparently believes that a lot of the financing for the big
> real estate development will come from a bond floated by the 3 Nyacks.]
> That prospect has been one of the hot button issues in the emails and in
> the criticism of what is going on, and the button needs to be pushed sort
> of hard, so that we see what the Riverspace backers have to say about it.
> so, these are good questions for the Riverspace Board. If you want to
> rebuild the downtown, what are you doing to keep the RS theater alive and
> growing to seek the status of BAM while you do your brick & mortar stuff.
> III.
> The third set of questions to ask relate to the “not for profit” plan to
> build not only a new theater, but to build the entire downtown block under
> the “ownership” of a not for profit entity, now a stand-alone from FON.
> These questions focus on legal structures and financing, and get a little
> complicated (given the many possible options) but these discussions are
> going to be some of the most important ones about Riverspace, and they
> need to start getting off the ground sooner rather than later. Most
> importantly, it should not be assumed that these questions have been all
> answered, or can be answered by stating: a non-profit will do all of it.
> That is way too simple; it may work in the end, but that has to be talked
> about and the many other options to realize this downtown plan need to be
> considered. I hope the following will identify some of the other options.
> So, to start, there are a lot of issues about the not for profit program
> for this project, and each raises different issues, so let me list some:
> A. The Village needs tax ratables which enable the Village to earn its
> income by taxing real estate. This is key: if you take a major
> development like the proposed downtown rebuilding plan OFF the tax rolls,
> you may take literally millions of dollars of tax revenues out of future
> budgets of the local municipalities, including Orangetown and the Village.
> Taxes are the Village’s primary income, paying for programs; street
> lights, streetscapes, cops, garbage collection etc. You need a lot of it;
> you cannot give it away willy-nilly; you need to plan to increse it in
> [I put that in caps, but you can write in BOLD or underline it as well; it
> is the first principal of rational smart development in a municipality.]
> Future administration of municipalities will be MORE not less expensive,
> and the loss of those monies could bepotentially very damaging to Village
> and Town finances. Giving up millions of dollars over decades may not be
> a good idea for the Village and alternatives which avoid that may be
> wiser.
> It is not enough to say; some tax substitute will be arranged. The talk
> to date about the real estate development is that its net profits will go
> 100% to fund the theater. Sounds good, but if you are giving up $XXXX in
> tax money that is not being collected, a large part of those net profits
> will really reflect lost tax revenues, so “taxes” will still foot the
> bill.
> One set of questions to ask — down the road if not this week — should
> center on whether the financial models that project net profits to spend
> on the theater can be calculated and shown to work if these commercial
> real estate improvements pay full taxes. That should be possible, and the
> numbers should be out in front for everyone to review and to talk about.
> That leads to another question is : why must the real estate part of this
> be a non-profit undertaking, when part or all of the project could be bid
> out to private parties, who would FINANCE the construction by themselves,
> earn money as profit (AND take the risk of loss). It is not obvious that
> a fresh out of the box non-profit entity is the right party to do a major
> real estate development. I do some construction litigation; it is a very
> dangerous art. People go broke building big projects. In Nyack, the
> Clarmont went through a bankruptcy before it came to its current owners.
> The old Helen Hayes theater was a big hole in the ground sucking money
> from the community, before it evolved to its most recent state, which
> looks like a big yellow brick waiting for more money to be spent to finish
> it, [& which surely has or will bankrupt the guy who agreed to build it.]
> Questions need to be asked about how the final projected plan gets done:
> is it really necessary that the whole thing be done by one small group; is
> it possible that different parts could be broken out and given to separate
> builders, to build at their own cost, earn money or lose money, and leave
> the properties on the tax rolls, so that Nyack (and Orangetown) get taxes.
> For instance, if you adopted the overall Riverspace plan, you might get a
> private building to rebuild parts of the plan, like the apartments or a
> big corner with M&T keeping the rights to the main corner retail spaces.
> From other projects, I know that New York law allows a Village like Nyack
> to give out long term leases for the airspace (and subspace) at its
> parking lots, to let private contractors build apartments or offices etc..
> Under those General Municpal Law provisions, after the end of the 50 or 75
> year lease, the improvements go back to the Village; the builder pays
> rents, and the improvements are on the tax rolls so that taxes get paid.
> The possibility of structuring part of the buildout this way should be
> considered. The attraction of this kind of arrangement is that the
> Village gets to set the specficiations for the building. Because the
> Village owns the big parking lots, it could determine the specifications
> for future development with the specific terms of RFPs (meaning Requests
> for Proposals, which is how contractors bid on municipal projects). I
> think (but do not know) the RFPs might include a requirement to help fund
> the theaters, just like the non-profits program plans to do (or part of
> the new tax revenue, might be used to subsidize some of the Art projects.
> In addition, from working on possible ways to build a parking lot in the
> downtown of Nyack, I also know that there are companies that build such
> parking lots at their own cost, to the specifications of a municipality;
> they take long-term leases, and they can pay rents to the Village under
> the leases. The attraction of this kind of building is that public monies
> are not needed to fund the construction. These companies have the funds
> and financial sophisticaion to project future use and revenues. They then
> cut a deal with the municipality for their share of those reveneues, over
> time, that lets them recoup costs, and make a profit. That way the
> parking facility is built, and operated at private expense, without an
> outlay of public money, but the Village gets the parking facility to use.
> Typically the parking fackilities built this way, revert to the Village at
> the end of the 50 or 75 year lease, which is negotiated at the beginning.
> But most importantly, the heavy lifting of finance and construction, and
> (probably) management are done by the contractor party, which means that
> the Village does not have to fund the project, or pretend to have the
> expertise to build and manage such a facility. [A big background issue is
> that we do not have a Village government that is competenent to do this
> kind of development work, as shown by the fiasco of the new muni-meters.]
> There is a lot going on with these questions, and I suspect that not much
> of this will get discussed at the Riverspace meeting on June 5, 2008. But
> these kinds of issues need to be aired as early as possible and discussed
> as possible ways to build the dream downtown that the architects imagine.
> IV.
> OK, I will stop. If you got this far, you are genuinely interested in
> these issues about the Riverspace development, and you realize that it is
> not going to be easy to discuss and to resolve these issues without an
> effort to look behind the first round of presentations that we are likely
> to see. I personally hope the Riverspace project finds legs and rational
> hands to lead it to success, in a time frame and with legal and financial
> plans that will not come back to bite Nyack in the ass, or, in the worst
> case scenario, leave us with a demolished downtown and nothing in its
> place, like you got in the 60s when the first “urban renewal” was done so
> badly, or more recently, when the Village took over the old Helen Hayes
> theater, and, after a very long time, has yet to show that it managed that
> property in a rational way or created something new and viable downtown.
> V.
> Come to the June 5, 2008 meeting, hear what is said, and do what you can
> to insure that we have a full, fair, rational and non-nutso public debate.
> Thank you for your attention.
> Joseph Adams
> ************************
> footnote 1: The Depew Avenue buildings, i.e. Nyack Plaza (the big
> mid-block building) and the group of block buildings south of DePew
> Avenue, provide needed affordable housing in Nyack that needs to be
> protected. It is vulnerable to market forces, gentrification and a “mark
> to market” rent setup, which is ameliorated, but not permanently so, with housing
> subsidies. It really is obvious that the 1960s rebuilding was a disaster
> in terms of design, both for the downtown and for the subsidized housing
> on Depew. So we should not mourn its loss on the downtown block, but the
> Village needs to protect and to preserve the subsidized housing built on
> Depew Ave.
> footnote 2: Also, it is completely dishonest to try to discredit them by
> saying they are not registered voters. Nyack, like China, is a one-party
> place, so if you do not belong to the party or agree with them, voting is
> sort of an existential luxury not likely to have impact on public events.

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