How broad are the powers of a community board hearing a zoning application? Is the panel to determine whether granting an exemption to the regulations, known as a variance, would serve area residents’ best interests? Or does it also have the authority to dictate how the company applying for a variance should operate once established, such as by dictating who may or may not work there?
We believe it’s the former. But at least one community board seems to believe it’s the latter, and that fits into a disturbing trend we see reflected also in the City Council — of government officials making more and more demands on the private sector in exchange for the right to do business.
The immediate case in question is one before Community Board 12 in Jamaica. The panel held a hearing last week on an application from Blink Fitness, which wants to open a location downtown. The gym needs the simplest kind of variance to do so, essentially a special permit, as required by the city of any “physical culture” establishment.
But the board, rather than just considering potential impacts on the community, is insisting that Blink guarantee that some of the jobs it will create will go to area residents.
We understand the employment situation is dire in economically disadvantaged communities like Jamaica, where the unemployment rate is much higher than in most other parts of Queens. But the board has no mandate to demand set-asides — a loaded term, yes, but let’s not beat around the bush; that’s what’s being called for. It has no right to delay ruling on the gym’s plan for such a reason, as it did last week. Here’s another loaded term that’s apt for what CB 12 is doing: extortion. If the board were to turn down the application because Blink Gym declined to say exactly how many people it will hire and from where, the Board of Standards and Appeals will simply overturn the decision — a good thing, because if it didn’t, the company would have every right to sue the city, and it would win hands-down.
This is a routine application. It’s not like the establishment of the Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, where an entirely new kind of business won a state contract to take over a large, unique parcel of land and, in exchange, promised a multitude of public benefits, including work for local people. One could argue that Resorts World shouldn’t have had to make promises on jobs either, but it’s an entirely different situation.
Again, we sympathize with CB 12, understand its intent and find it hard to blame the members for thinking making job demands is in their purview. After all, the City Council just voted to override the mayor’s veto on two different bills forcing certain employers to pay certain workers far more than the state-mandated minimum wage. And it’s making new demands on banks in another bill the mayor tried to block, a measure that will, if anything, force them to make more of the risky loans to unqualified borrowers that were a major factor in the financial crisis we’re still working to recover from. In each case, only a handful of lawmakers, mostly the Republican contingent, voted against the bills.
CB 12 is a board in flux, one whose new leadership is trying to update its bylaws and irking some longtime members in the process. The chaos that erupted at a recent meeting — covered in the Queens Chronicle and nowhere else —was enough to catch the attention of Borough Hall and area lawmakers who attended the next session to keep an eye on things. Now it looks like city officials may also have to remind the members of the scope of their powers.
The board should approve Blink Fitness’ application. It can encourage local hiring, not demand it. Residents, after all, will probably be glad of a new opportunity to fight another problem in the community, as well as many others: obesity.