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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Bulldozing Small Business

Cities New York City

All four Democratic candidates for mayor claim to favor small businesses and economic growth. But who really does?

Here's what they say. Former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer pledges to revamp "unfair and unnecessary" regulations on small businesses. The Manhattan borough president, C. Virginia Fields, pledges to set aside more city contracts for small businesses and to provide such companies with access to capital. City Council speaker Gifford Miller pledges to slash taxes for New York firms. Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner pledges to cut ticket fines for business owners. In general, of course, what New York's small businesses really need is for the pols just to leave them alone.

But no aspiring leader can say he's in favor of small-business growth and then stand by while a vibrant district of small factories and shops in central Brooklyn faces wholesale destruction by the government.

Why are these Brooklyn companies in danger? Developer Bruce Ratner wants to bulldoze much of the Prospect Heights neighborhood to make way for new high-rise luxury housing. Mr. Ratner must build the apartment towers if he's to build a basketball stadium for the Nets nearby, because profits from those rental buildings must sustain likely losses on the stadium. (To make the whole scheme viable, Mr. Ratner must build in a safe neighborhood, where affluent people already want to live; he's not proposing to condemn a swath of, say, East New York.)

But some of those who do live and work in Prospect Heights won't give up their property without a fight. They've invested money and time in the up-and-coming neighborhood over the years, and, as rightful property owners, they now want to profit from the risks they took on the area long before Mr. Ratner came along.

So Mr. Ratner wants the state government simply to take their property for him. To condemn the neighborhood and hand it over to Mr. Ratner, Governor Pataki, through the Empire State Development Corporation, must claim that Prospect Heights is so in need of economic rejuvenation that the extraordinary power of the government to seize property through eminent domain in service of a "public use" is essential. Shamefully, Mr. Pataki is already on board, as is Mayor Bloomberg.

Those who make their living in Mr. Ratner's path of destruction include a family-owned art supply factory, a neighborhood bar that dates to pre-Prohibition days, and an immigrant-owned auto-body shop. Not only commercial, the neighborhood is dotted with newly renovated condominiums as well.

These owners pay their property taxes and income taxes, and they employ dozens of New Yorkers at good wages and in good working conditions. "For someone to come and tell us that we have to" sell out to Mr. Ratner, "that is wrong," said Simon Liu, who moved here from China more than 30 years ago, and who employs two dozen immigrant workers at his art-supply factory.

The next mayor may not be able to stop Mr. Pataki from doing what he wants through state agencies. But he (or she) could make life difficult for Ratner in Brookyn, even if he gets his condemnation. Mr. Ratner wouldn't have courted Bloomberg's support if he didn't think it important.

So where do the four Democratic candidates stand? Shamefully, three - Fields, Miller, and Weiner - stand squarely with Bloomberg and against Brooklyn's small businesses. Fields's spokesman notes that "Mr. Ratner has done a really good thing." Mr. Miller has called the project "a great investment" for Brooklyn. Mr. Weiner enthused that "it's the kind of economic activity I would like to see."

They've all fallen for Mr. Ratner's naked bribe. Mr. Ratner pledges to build more than 2,000 "affordable" apartments in his luxury towers to satisfy New York's politically powerful subsidized-housing lobby.

Making matters worse, two of the candidates are in positions now to do something to curtail the abuse of eminent domain. Council Member Leticia James, who represents the targeted Brooklyn neighborhood, has proposed legislation to outlaw the use of city funds for projects that require a government agency to condemn property and transfer it from one private owner to another for private economic development. Mr. Miller could push that legislation through the Council. In addition, as one of Gotham's highest elected officials, Mr. Miller could lobby Congress to pass a similar bill pending at the national level, outlawing federal economic-development grants to states that invoke eminent domain for purely private projects. Weiner, of course, is in Congress. But he has thus far refrained from co-sponsoring the bill.

Only Fernando Ferrer has refused to support Mr. Ratner unreservedly. "The public has a right to know who will be displaced, how much will it cost, what is the math of this project," he told the Daily News earlier this year. "The community has a right to the answers ... . [T]he answers have not been forthcoming." (Even so, Mr. Ferrer wants it both ways - he repeatedly calls Mr. Ratner's pledge of affordable housing "powerful.")

None of the four Democratic candidates for mayor has yet to unveil a compelling idea about anything to set himself apart from Mayor Bloomberg. Here's one suggestion: Bloomberg keeps crowing that he's created 62,000 jobs throughout the city. Fields, Ferrer, Miller, or Weiner could challenge Bloomberg: Why are you helping to destroy Simon Liu's two dozen jobs and his profitable, tax-producing Brooklyn business? Don't you, as a successful businessman, support private property rights for those business owners who don't have massive political power?

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun