Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Manhattan Borough Candidates Debate at Waterside Plaza – Fate of Sanitation Garage at Hunter Site Frames Discussion
By Tod Shapiro and the NYC Seminar Center Flatiron Hot! Editorial Staff
Flatiron Hot! News dispatched its reporters to hear what the four candidates for Manhattan Borough President had to say about pressing local issues on a warm summer night in mid-July. The candidates used the event as an opportunity to hone their messages and meet the voters, as they geared up for the race to replace departing BP Scott Stringer, who is leaving office to pursue the City Controller post against the newly repentant Eliot Spitzer.
Jessica Lappin, Gale Brewer, Robert Jackson, and Julie Menin took part in an informal meeting to discuss their goals and how they would address the problems facing Manhattan. They met at the picturesque public space at Waterside Plaza, hard against the East River, a middle-class community that has some pressing and pointed local issues that have just come to the fore. The tenants there are up in arms about the recent decision by the Bloomberg administration and CUNY to demolish the Hunter College Health Sciences Complex at 23rd Street and replace a major portion of the former CUNY campus with a Sanitation Department garage and fueling station that stands to greatly increase traffic and sanitation-related activity in a residential area. The opportunity for the candidates to respond to the residents’ questions gave Flatiron Hot! News a good chance to assess the issues and styles of the candidates and their overall tenor and flavor. Our staff got some great pictures and videos of the candidates which we will gladly share. As the Flatiron District will be greatly affected by the voters’ choice of Borough President, all its residents should learn as much about the candidates as possible.
Jessica Lappin touted her expertise as a long-time City Council member representing Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side, where she focused on land use and zoning issues. Well-spoken and determined to take the side of the middle class, her big theme was that the current zoning for the area near Waterside, and indeed for all the city, should be part of an updated overall master plan for the city, and that putting the Sanitation Department depot and garage in the middle of a residential neighborhood reeked of piecemeal, one-off planning by the Bloomberg administration and the Department of Sanitation. While not committing to vote and/or take steps against the project – the need to keep an open mind and bargain with other elected and government officials precluded taking that stance right now – she strongly suggested that she would use her position to pursue an option that would give more weight to the residents’ interests. Lappin went on to note her roots as a product the NYC public dchools (Stuyvesant High School), her role as mother of two young children in public schools, and her advocacy of the Cornell-Techion project on Roosevelt Island as proof of her approach to growing the City as a high-tech center. She also mentioned her role in putting important government and city information on-line as a critical tool in allowing residents to become aware of these issues, and be part of the planning process from the very beginning.
Julie Menin agreed with this sentiment, again criticizing the lack of a revised master zoning plan for the whole area. She seemed to implicitly take the side of the residents, and left little doubt that she would oppose the new garage. Menin, a former entrepreneur and business owner, in recent times has made a name for herself as an advocate and outspoken civil libertarian. Menin is best known for defending the rights of a controversial mosque to be built downtown, as well as defending the status of an Islamic-themed public school that was criticized by many in the city. She bravely worked against the “anti-Sharia” fear of all ideas Muslim and Islamic prevalent in the city in the time immediately after 9/11. She sounded very much the part of the maverick Civil Libertarian in the tradition of Floyd Abrams, William Knustler, and others–a well-known, but not always popular tradition in New York. Menin made much of her role as a former business person, and in NOT being an elected official.
Gale Brewer, long-time City Council Member for the Upper West Side and Clinton, was quite direct in her response to the sanitation garage – she opposed it strongly. As with her opponents, she criticized the piecemeal, haphazard approach to zoning, and the inclination of the Mayor’s office, CUNY, and the Department of Sanitation to move ahead with this project without stopping to consider the big picture of this part of the city. Even though it is legal, it isn’t wise, she implied. Again, it was the role of the Borough President – which she would happily fill – to make sure that a wider borough perspective was used. Brewer went on to tout her legislative record, including her role in legislating safeguards for domestic workers and increased broadband access across the city.
Robert Jackson, long-time City Council member for Harlem, struck a very populist tone. He, like Lappin, refused to rule out a vote for the garage, saying that his years on the Council had shown that one must bargain and know when to cut a deal to maximize any chance to slow down, stop, or alter the project. He said, more than one time, that voters had to fight and agitate when they had a chance to express their opinions on these deals, that too often seemed to be sprung on neighborhoods suddenly, with more attention being given to institutional and corporate interests rather than that of local residents. One heard in the African-American Jackson and his impressive cadence an echo of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Certainly, he gave a forceful impression.
Upon consideration, our Flatiron Hot! staffers noted the assumption by all of the candidates that government in NYC had to take a larger role, and manage and direct the big picture through reformed zoning, and all of them showed a reflexive antagonism to business and institutional interests at the expense of the middle class. Just what one would expect in a Democratic city. And all of them showed the absolute conviction that this was the normal state of affairs, without any other reasonable path. One yearned for a centrist voice that might at least note the role of free enterprise and the market in much of the city’s storied past. Such certitude – perhaps arrogance – might well explain why we have not had a Democratic mayor for almost 20 years. In any event, check out Flatiron’s Hot!’s pictures and videos and judge for yourself.