Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mind The Gap

Bit weird to be writing about New York City news from London, but this is fairly appropriate. I caught the following New York Times article about overcrowding on the subway. It's interesting, since it gives us an idea of which of the city's lines are most worth avoiding.

I have two doubts about the value of the story, though. My first issue is that, at least anecdotally, Brooklyn residents are living in bizarro-world, since the 4 and 5, widely detested by Manhattan residents, are just about bearable at rush hours, at least compared to the Q, which at rush hours can be hell on wheels. Your perspective may differ, naturally.

The second is a little more significant, and it's found in the following section:

Mr. Roberts said the data had particular significance in light of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal for a congestion pricing system that would charge most drivers who enter Manhattan below 86th Street — with the intent of moving people out of their cars and onto mass transit.

Mr. Roberts said that on many subway lines, especially the heavily used numbered lines, there is little or no room to accommodate more riders.

“It’s bad news,” Mr. Roberts said. “There’s no room at the inn.”

If congestion pricing becomes a reality, planners will have to rely on additional bus service as a way to increase the transit system’s capacity.

This last short point shows how far New Yorkers have in getting their heads around congestion pricing. Congestion pricing, as it developed in London, though less so in Singapore, starts with the assumption that large and mature cities have very little room to expand their subway/rail/light rail systems.

This is a reasonable assumption, as any wizened student of the East side Subway line would tell you. Mass transit improvements under congestion pricing will have to be focused on buses, which are the cheapest and easiest assets to upgrade.

My support for this point is also anecdotal, but when I used to live in London, I took nearly all my trips by Underground, and only resorted to the bus when the Tube was no longer running (after midnight). Since the introduction of congestion pricing in London, buses run much more frequently, reliably and quickly. They're also much cheaper.

There will, it is true, have to be major improvements to the quality of New York's buses, and much better information about their routes and whereabouts. Probably more coherent service between the boroughs, too. It's unclear as yet how much of Bloomberg's plan involves funding these kinds of improvements, but they will be essential.

But the article has the link between the state of the subway and the introduction of congestion. The former doesn't complicate the latter, it makes it necessary.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Tax And Rend

Quick question here, because I am about to get on a plane again for the mother country. Bruce Ratner apparently needs a continuation of the 421 tax exemption for market rate condominium apartments at his Atlantic Yards project, just as it ends for every single other developer in the city. But if he needs these tax breaks to make the project viable, why weren't the cut-rate land sales, power of eminent domain, tax-exempt bond treatment, bogus sports team acquisition and control of most of the relevant politicians enough?

At what point do we say "well it's a bit of an expensive pain in the ass to build apartments over a rail yard, but why in the name of god do you need all of these time-, money- and land-consuming baubles as well?" Or, to put it another way, have we now reached the tipping point where we see the entire ugly Atlantic Yards mess not as an intricately poised balance of various economic, social and political interests and more as a lumpy grab-bag of foul-smelling pork?

Note also a tussle involving a civil rights lawyer who isn't Norman Siegel right on the corner of the project site. Spooky. Will hope to post during my absence. If not, check you in one week.

[Full disclosure. I've been trying for a while to buy an apartment that would benefit from 421 benefits. Not happened yet, mind]

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What The Hell Did They Expect For Their Lousy 35 Cents?

I've ranted about this before, and it looks like I'll have to rant about this again. Top real estate developer's son Governor Elliot Spitzer has nominated a real estate developer to run the MTA, succeeding another real estate developer. I can only assume that the PR thinking behind this is that we'll be pathetically grateful it's not Donald Trump Jr..

Probably the most baleful thing about the government of New York City, or perhaps a close second to the democratic party's grip on the city's lower levels of government, is the extent of the influence of real estate developers on the political process. Moreover it's basically the only constituency in the city that neither Spitzer nor Mayor Bloomberg have been willing to take on.

Now yes, the city has been built on constant development, commercial savvy and access to finance. Developers possess all three. Yes, it's important that the city has the ability to accommodate the huddled masses of Midwestern business school graduates, and recover the office space lost to the fundamentalist nutjobs on 9-11.

But let's leave aside the propriety of giving the guys in charge of the city's scarcest resource (land) further access to political power, why do we assume such people have the faintest interest in how mass transit works? They handed the upgrade of the London Underground to people who develop infrastructure for a living, and they still managed to screw the thing up.

Gothamist blithely, adorably, notes the real estate connection, but gets the significance ass-backwards:

So once again, the MTA may have another real estate mogul as its head. This probably makes sense, as the MTA owns a significant amount of land that it is looking to develop, e.g. the Hudson Yards.

Getting cynicism from that crew is unlikely (although the sentence might be the incubator for a new strain of sarcasm), but we can turn that statement on its head, and see that the appointment is a fairly effective way of making sure the MTA does not get in the way of any lucrative projects, either by questioning their sustainability (Atlantic Yards), or making sure that sales are done at attractive prices (Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards), and avoiding disturbing any pricey investments (if the Second Avenue Subway was running anywhere apart from the Upper East Side it would have been open in 1985).

There's also the advantage of being able to say to reporters "A proper businessman looked over our figures, and we absolutely have to jack up fares rather than sell our land holdings for what they're worth." Because apparently there are absolutely no sources of financial know-how in Manhattan anywhere apart from real estate developers.

[The headline's a Pelham reference]

Monday, June 18, 2007

Peace Out

Originally uploaded by Gringcorp.
In the absence of any substantially useful material to riff on, here's a picture from my travels in Japan. It's the Great Buddha of Kamakura, or the Daibutsu. It presaged a moment of great calm during an otherwise stressful trip. Hope it brings you the same.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

This Is Young Calgarians

Yellow House On The Prairie
Originally uploaded by Gringcorp.
Little nod to Make Up there. Yes, I am currently chilling out in the world's largest airport chair, charging my iPod, and catching up on the news, after a few days offline. I was in Banff for a day, where I neglected to take in any of the scenery (usual conference nonsense), and then spent two days in Calgary with relatives.

Mostly just chilling and sleeping an driving around and telling stupid stories about grandparents, except for a brief visit to an historic house. The Perrenoud Ranche has a history going back to 1890, although the main structure is just under 100 years old. It was restored last decade and now serves as a place to display art. An earlier plan to run it as a B&B fell through, which is probably for the best because it's a lovely place to see pictures. The happy snap up top doesn't really do it justice, so please follow through on the link.

While I'm talking about cultural institutions for a moment, could I just issue this plea to the Municipal Arts Society to stop bringing the spam to concerned Prospect Heights/Park Slope residents. For some reason, signing up to the Brooklyn Speaks campaign, this whole misguided "maybe if we adopt more nuanced tones in criticizing the Atlantic Yards project they'll scale it back or make it less ass-ugly" campaign has been read by the MAS as consent to be added to its mailing list for all of its non-Atlantic Yards verbiage.

The sum total of the campaign's achievement seems to be a healthy boost to the MAS' email list, and that ain't right. Apparently John Kerry's personal political organisation benefited from a similar influx of email addresses from people who couldn't stand George W. Bush. He tried to use them to turn himself into some kind of power broker. Which is bad. So you shouldn't do likewise, Kent Barwick.

[UPDATE. Hello No Land Grab readers. I've fixed the post, the result of a rather rushed writing process, so that it makes sense]

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Very Little Gravitas Indeed*

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThis is why you don't mess with the media. The Prime Minister criticises the media for being shallow, inaccurate, short-termist and cruel. "Feral beasts" is what he calls them. The Guardian sticks the link to the report on the speech under a picture of him hanging with cartoon characters. Caveat rantor.

*The title is also the name of an Iain M. Banks spaceship

Monday, June 11, 2007

With A Whimper

As excuses for a poor rate of posting, this one is not bad. I've been in Japan for a few days, and had very little wireless access. That I can complain about this hips you to the fact that I had a laptop with me. It was, however, mostly a personal trip, and I was lugging a computer around to finish some work.

My attention to matters blog-related is unlikely to improve. I have a work-related trip later on this week, and some green energy-related verbiage to pump out in the intervening period. Given how ghastly the renewable energy development community can be, and the fact that they were all out of pocket last week at the same whinge-fest in San Diego, my mood will not be good.

I haven't had a chance to look properly at the failure of one of the central legal challenges to the ugly and disruptive Atlantic Yards project. As reported in the New York Times, the judge rejected the idea that the project was largely private in nature. This will strike you as weird since the project mostly consists of a private sports arena and a bunch of private condo complexes.

But the involvement, albeit at a slightly late stage, of public bodies seems to have given it a sufficiently public veneer. Left unmentioned, but possibly also influential, were the role of misguided public officials in pushing the project and the use of tax-exempt financing for the project. The judge decided, as far as I can tell, that having some public benefit, however nebulous, was enough.

There will be a trickle of additional lawsuits in coming weeks and months, and a few chances to show that there are substantial public costs to this boondoggle. It will, at the very least, enforce in the public consciousness the flawed thinking behind the project. But Prospect Heights looks much more likely to get its own Metrotech, without having any of of the excuses on which the previous monstrosity was built.

The Sopranos ending? I won't engage in spoilers, but will only observe that the creator, David Chase, finally had to choose between the series' identity as a solid and gripping mob drama, and its reputation as a mirror on the American family. He chose the latter, but it wasn't really convincing. These are violent men, the violent times are incidental.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Temple Of Evil

Temple Of Evil
Originally uploaded by Gringcorp.
I've explained before that Union Square is the epicenter of misguided and intrusive marketing campaigns. For various reasons, including the proximity of New York University and a few ad agencies, product launches tend to be visited on the area's workers before anyone else.

Please don't think we're grateful. My intern came back a day or two back in a state of considerable agitation. She had been accosted by a spokesmodel with what appeared to be a sample of cookies. The bag even had "Cookies" in large writing on the side.

Can you guess what happened next? Inside the box was not anything useful, like a life-sustaining mixture of sugar and fat, but a pedometer and some promotional material. Similar payloads were concealed within fake pizza boxes and lord knows what else.

The source of this disturbance is a new "weight loss product" called alli, which, its makers note, is FDA-approved and available over the counter. This means that it may not be ineffective and its probably not dangerous. The only remaining strike against it is that it's part of the pernicious, meretricious, and psychologically harmful weight-loss industrial complex.

I can't speak for women, I wish I could, but since I'm reliably informed I talk kind of funny for a man I should probably avoid speaking for a different gender altogether. But if I was a female I would be heartily sick of an entire industry devoted to telling me how I should look, feel and eat.

As it stands, I'm just irritated by the litter, obstruction, vacant spokesmodels, pastel shades and smugness of the enterprise. You can check out the fiasco at the Daryl Roth Theatre for the next week or so. Gumby Fresh does not endorse flinging pies, congealed fat, government cheese or Skittles at them. Much.

[UPDATE: Uncanny. More here from the Observer's bridal blog, with reporting and everything. Plus, they actually read the patronising garbage on the side of the fake boxes:

“I want pizza, not this dumb thing,” said Ms. Sullivan, holding up the pedometer like a smelly sock. On the box was some coy “nutritional information”: “Calories Per Slice: A Whole Lot. Fat Grams Per Slice: More Than You Want to Know. Probably Going Straight To: Your Hips.”

Oh, and welcome, Glaxo readers (for it is they that foisted this cluster of idiocy upon us). How many insecurities did you attempt to monetise today?]

Staten Island Chuck Up

It takes, in my humble opinion, brass balls to go to the beach in Staten Island. In fact, it takes brass balls to go to the beach anywhere in New York Harbour, which is why the only places with beaches either don't allow paddling or are on Staten Island.

I shall not bore you by recapping my experience with the non-beach that is in fact a strip of slime encrusted rock called Tottenville Beach. All you need to know is don't go there, unless you have a car and an abiding love of insects.

[That said, Tottenville's Conference House Park includes the site of abortive peace talks between the the brave, noble, honest and courageous British generals and the weaselly traitor Americans. These started, uncomfortably enough, on September 11 1776, and went nowhere.]

No, Tottenville "Beach" exists to make the island's other beaches, Midland and South Beach, look good. Why would they require such assistance? Maybe because the damn places are riddled with needles. Follow the link in the preceding sentence and you will find the Parks Department stressing how rare the incident is, and how unlikely the risk of infection is.

To the second I say, maybe, and to the first, nonsense. An acquaintance of mine that grew up in Midwood says that the beaches of Staten Island are famous for their spiky treats. That said, this acquaintance says that NATO is a vile cabal whose main interest lies in subjugating the proud Serb nation, so there's your balance for you.

Staten Island's beaches exist to make Coney Island look luxurious. The residents of that fair Borough largely decamp to Sandy Hook in search of brisk sea action. Those of Brooklyn go to Long Beach or he various bits of Fire Island, maybe Rockaway if wheels are on hand. Waves are fun. you jump them, you surf them, they clear the crap off the beach. You don't get them in a harbour. Which is why you get ships there.

Right, hating done.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Windy Whingers

Oh wow. It's almost uncanny. I spend yesterday ranting about how energy companies are almost by definition a gang of blowhards and hypocrites, and along comes a really lazy article from the New York Times to provide us with a chance to watch them at work.

It's entitled "Where Now, for the Wind?", the New York Times reminds us that its journalists are hyper-educated hemigods with a long lede that tilts at a Don Quixote reference (I didn't even get paid for that one). After a little bit of scene-setting, just below a picture that tries, but fails, to provide a convincing alternative to the cliched wind farm shot, the article settles in to the same lazy groove that any writer combining business and green energy slides into.

And just as the cows shelter in the shadows of the turbines to escape the hot sun, a growing number of copycat companies are lining up to imitate the big bet by this company, based in Juno Beach, Fla., that wind power can work as well for shareholders as it does for environmentalists.

This idea that green energy is a preserve of idealists and hippies that capitalism stumbled upon this year is wrong-headed and patronising. It ignores the huge R&D subsidies that business has sucked up over the years, the tax-credits for alternative fuels that go back to the 1980s, and the share price and reputational benefits of an interest in green technologies.

A decade ago, when many other utilities viewed wind as a half-baked idea for tree huggers, executives of the FPL Group cast an accountant’s eye on the prospect of further developing wind power.

What our poor reporter, who is obviously confused and frightened about the economics of power generation, presumably meant was, "A decade ago, when the cost of wind turbines per kilowatt was so high that making a meaningful return before tax was impossible, FPL stumbled upon the technology during its eternal quest to keep its profits out of the hands of the IRS." Only it came out like the big strong capitalist zoomed in to save the feckless hippies.

FPL's an interesting outfit, pretty well-run, and not known for its friendliness towards business reporters. If I didn't know better, I'd say that our friends at the American Wind Energy Association were responsible for setting this up, because screw me if the article didn't manage to touch on a lot of their talking points.

1) Hey, we may be capitalists, and very smart, motivated ones at that, but we care!
2) We still simply cannot get along without massive tax subsidies
3) The prices of wind turbines are too high
4) Horrid local communities simply do not understand the benefits of wind turbines. Aren't they pretty?

What we don't get are the more interesting bits of the story. How investment banks are making huge profits from buying and selling wind power (ask Goldman Sachs how much of a premium it makes from buying low from wind producers). How only large US corporations can benefit from these tax breaks, and how transferring these breaks to larger corporations requires an army of bankers and lawyers. How FPL has had to guarantee to the banks that finance its wind farms that it will make good any losses in the event the tax breaks end.

Our reporter seems confused about where gas comes from, and how it makes electricity:

Wind now represents 12 percent of the FPL Group’s diversified energy portfolio and it is growing along with natural gas and nuclear — other bets that the threat of climate change will increasingly determine what utilities can and cannot build to meet electricity demand.

Presumably he was huffing glue during chemistry, because while I can just about stomach the idea that nuclear is relatively carbon neutral (its flaws lie elsewhere), I don't see how a hydrocarbon formed over millions of years by geological activity, hauled out of deposits concentrated in the Middle East, hauled over to the US, and burned to produce water, carbon dioxide and kinetic energy is green just because it isn't called oil.

The fact that FPL doesn't burn coal has a lot to do with the fact that Florida doesn't have much, although I'll grant you it doesn't have much wind either. The reporter does get some amusing bits of dirt about the apparently topsy-turvy FPL of the early part of the decade (it was just fine, it just couldn't find anyone else to merge with).

So we have the guy who left after having an affair in 2000, and then just afterwards we have the idea that FPL saw the light and abandoned gas-fired plants in favour of wind after previously pursuing wind. i think we're meant to link this departed adulterous, and unnamed executive with the failed strategy. Problem is, FPL was building plenty of gas-fired projects in the late 90s, and built a couple of big wind farms in 2001-2, at the same time as it was pursuing an (admittedly accident-prone) gas plant building programme. In 2001 it did the biggest financing ever for wind energy projects.

So as you can tell, I don't like FPL and I don't like sanctimonious wind producers.

Craven Non-A Class Shares

Between the news that the rather meek family that controls the Wall Street Journal is thinking of selling it to Rupert Murdoch after all, and Bush making a major speech on the importance of reducing carbon emissions, Felix Salmon must be feeling like a dog with two peckers, as the colourful southern argot would have it. I suggest you head there for educated comment, pausing here only to linger briefly on the fruits of my childlike Quark skillz.

Any lingering hope that the Journal's buyer will be a warm and fuzzy, inexplicably well-capitalised, trust is pretty much evaporating. Shares in Dow Jones, which owns the Journal, are now trading even higher than the offer price, which few thought any other buyer would match. This time next year, we could have a former editor of Bizarre! calling the shots on Wall Street. After all, one of them has already ended up as Tory leader David Cameron's right hand man.

If you're part of the old-time rants about metal constituency, rather than the new school rants about business constituency, head over to Sugarzine, where a lucid, if less-than thorough Mastodon review is up.

[Photo pinched from Bloggerheads with all due respect]