Friday, May 09, 2008

Public Sector Pondering

Most of us are granted no access into the minds of the public and private players who make and break a deal like this one. We only get what is reported. In this case, I laughed aloud, making a tsunami on the north brim of my coffee mug, when I read that the spokesman for the anointed developer, Tishman Speyer, said the following:

“We share the same goal as the M.T.A. and the city, to transform Hudson Yards into a successful and vibrant community,” he added. “We still hope to be able to complete this deal and reach an agreement that satisfies the needs of everyone.”

Not really. What the developer wants is a smooth road to a lucrative return on investment that will gleam like an ace in their hand when they talk to lenders. What the MTA wants is not to lose control over the project. They don't want to be Jed Clampett who probably sold his oil field for less than its value. And Mayor Bloomberg? He wants a diamond for his crown currently riddled with bullet-sized holes where jewels of stalled big projects like this one had been intended. What do I want? I stand among the street level prophets waving the commandments of "New Urbanism" and howling about mixed use, walkable, low-rise, eclectic and green development with river-access and in synch with the High Line. (We are the first to be trampled in the playing out of this game.)

The first fascinating aspect of this is the fact that New York has a mayor who must think to himself - but can never say aloud - that if it was his project, he'd have had it done by now. The ribbons would have all been cut, and the New Urbanists would be drinking lattes on river-viewing benches or dodging prams while trains rumbled faintly beneath their skates. He's right. He could have picked up the phone and assembled a team in less than five minutes, knowing what each one wanted and needed to get out of the deal, and able to use his power to make sure that none of the partners went hungry. Unfortunately, the times we live in do not permit that type of expediency. Why elect a man with that kind of skill and then hobble him with doomed process? I almost wish he were a strong-armed boss working under the table but giving us Guastavino tiles overhead even if it meant that a few guys in Jersey got their driveways paved with public funds.

The second fascinating aspect of this is the impact of our nation's having fed and diapered the monkey in the White House for eight years. Trillions spent on a stupid war. An untreated addiction to oil. Increased longevity. Horrific health care costs. Home equity plunges. And somewhere to the north, a globaly warmed chunk of ice as big as Montana will soon dislodge itself and begin a floating and devastating tour of the east coast, scraping clear the surface of Manhattan where it will stop and be declared "Glacier Park" featuring the first and only frozen casino. (It will, of course avoid the Upper West Side, where homes like ours will not just enjoy the descriptive "Pre-War" but will also be labeled "Pre-Ice".) This national malaise has caused developers to sharpen their pencils. They are not comfortable with tight margins. In this climate, vacant lots sit like a bedouin's ugliest daughter. No one will take her off his hands until the dowry is big enough. And that is exactly where this project sits at this moment.

I am recalling all the large redevelopment projects I managed while in the public sector. The excitement! The thrill of the deal. Learning how to pull it off, from the initial site visit, riding shot gun with a small town mayor out to some desolate and polluted red brick shell of a factory, having pizza with him at the local eatery where every man stopped at our booth, and I'd be introduced as "The Guy from the State" who was going to take that old mill property and bring in thousands of new jobs, and then the flight out to the parent corporation of the high-tech venture whose in-state expansion we coveted. I'd unveil the incentives I'd had approved by the Governor, I'd tour their headquarters, glazing over. I'd be passed off to a senior VP for dinner, and I'd lie awake in a hotel bed wondering if they would bite. I would never hand off a deal to the financial team at this point. Too dangerous. I'd work up the numbers myself, making everyone's ROI clear enough to be attractive. I would write my own press releases, saying to the media guy in the Governor's Office, "I'm faxing you some words you might want to use for the announcement and the Governor's speech. Thought it might save you a little time." I would drive myself out to the site hours before everyone else, to make sure the chairs were arranged correctly, and that the reporters had my one-liners in their hands and access to the politicos who needed their attention like oxygen. I knew when to fade into the back row. Yes, I know something about control. And when I got kicked upstairs as a result of my success, I spent a number of years hiring people I thought could do that job and training them in the art of public-private deal making. A few of them did not disappoint me.

How on earth did I get that job? Me with a degree in Philosophy and odd Papal baggage. I remember sitting across the desk from a low level manager at a state agency. I had just left the priesthood, sort of left it anyway. It's not like I was suspended or defrocked. I simply walked out, leaving the bishop angry and with wounded pride at the disobedience of a good son who didn't want to be good any more. That manager was telling me he couldn't hire me because I was over-qualified. The job in question was an entry-level one in which I'd be required to inspect obvious things and fill out absurd reports that no one would ever read. It paid less than $12,000 a year. I looked him in the eye, calmly and steadily. I could see that I had guessed correctly that he was a Catholic second-generation Italian American, married, with kids, probably a weekly church-goer who now squirmed a bit under the scrutiny of an uncollared priest who had maybe heard his confession (the kind of confession married men sometimes drive to other parishes to make in dark booths where the priest won't recognize their voice.)

I remember walking out of his office feeling rather launched. I didn't know anything about the structure of state government but I guessed correctly that there were other offices bigger than his. I didn't want his job. As I drove home, I envisioned the pyramid of state government. At the top was the governor. I knew I'd never get that job. Not with my background, and not with the husband I would most certainly acquire very soon. Lieutenant Governor? Nope. Same deal. Same prohibitions. That is when I realized that I had no idea what titles or names roosted on the level just below Gov and Lieutenant Gov. If I didn't know this, one might assume that most others also didn't know this. I suddenly realized that although the costuming would be drab (offset by better pay) that invisible tier would have been the same level to which I would have aspired in the Vatican. I had a game plan. A target. Something to do during the day that would allow me to go out at night. But that is a story for another day.


dpaste said...

In other words, a goal. I'm envious.

Birdie said...

"But that is a story for another day."

You tease. You've made promises like this before. Are we really going to see Chapter Two any time soon? You keep us hungry for more.

It is energizing to have a goal before you; it makes the decisions clearer when given a choice of actions to take. And it makes it easier to avoid those who would hinder you in your task. "Join me, follow me, or get out of my way."

In the tangle of politics, it takes a special person to be able to balance all the spinning plates necessary to keep the curtain from closing on the show. I am not that person—at least in politics and business—but it is fascinating to read about it from one who is. Please tell us more.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this interlude, and discussion of your previous career. I especially liked this little snippet:

"In this climate, vacant lots sit like a bedouin's ugliest daughter. No one will take her off his hands until the dowry is big enough. And that is exactly where this project sits at this moment."

Not only was this passage rich in imagery, it nailed your point home. Quite a talent, and funny as hell.

steve said...


I love your work, the Capote post you did is timeless. I would love to hear your story for another day. Id like to read more of you comparing the government of the state to the government of the church.

Anonymous said...

Love it! I too feel that much of my real work started when I stopped trying to fit into a church that no longer wanted me.

Vocation is an odd thing, isn't it? My story was a bit more circuitous, from government and politics to religion, and then currently to working with nonprofits as a consultant, tending them like seedlings and trying to help them grow and thrive.

I also love your vision of the New Urbanism, though I hope your enthusiasm for the Mayor doesn't extend to the "Doctor Disaster" Dan Doctoroff. A real loser, that one, though he is kind of hot in an arrogant, stupid way.

Oh, Jane Jacobs, where are you when we need you?

Anonymous said...

You fascinate me.

bigislandjeepguy said...

i snorted at the "making a tsunami".

i aspire to write with such attention to imagery.


Birdie said...

Hey: expect some traffic.