Blaz shores up Pier 40 but chops Elizabeth St. Garden

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Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Councilmember Corey Johnson listended at last week’s District 3 town hall as Chelsea tenant leader Miguel Acevedo, right, asked about what the city is doing for minority- and women-owned businesses and about hiring practices at the new Hudson Yards development. Photo by Dennis Lynch

BY DENNIS LYNCH | At a town hall meeting in Chelsea last week, Mayor de Blasio heartened local youth-sports league parents when he said the city is ready to help redevelop Pier 40 to ensure its playing fields are preserved — albeit, while pointedly stressing that Governor Cuomo has to start doing his fair share for Hudson River Park.

On the other hand, the mayor dealt a crushing blow to Elizabeth St. Garden activists when he said he simply disagrees that the entire beloved Little Italy garden should be saved by shifting an affordable housing project planned there to another site. It was a tough call, though, he admitted, dubbing it “the ultimate Solomonic decision” — evoking King Solomon’s threat to cleave a child in two with a sword to settle two women’s argument over who was its real mother. Except in that decision — the baby was not split, unlike what will happen to the garden if the mayor’s plan goes through.

The mayor answered dozens of questions from New Yorkers during a City Council District 3 town hall meeting that lasted around three hours at the New York City Lab School last Wednesday. Councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents the district, had planned the town hall, and then the mayor had asked to join in, according to a Johnson staffer.

Johnson’s West Side district stretches from Canal St. to W. 63rd St., and includes the Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. Anyone could ask the mayor anything — and many of the questions had citywide interest and beyond.

People pushed de Blasio on topics as local as excessive honking on the corner of W. 23rd St. and Eighth Ave. and as national as confronting President Donald Trump on his immigration policies. De Blasio had commissioners and deputy commissioners from all the city’s agencies on hand to answer specific questions and often deferred to them.

The mayor gave a quick nod to former state Senator Tom Duane, a man he called a “legend” in Albany and within the local community. Duane represented much of the area before retiring and being succeeded by Brad Hoylman.

Daniel Miller, a former president of the Greenwich Village Little League and a current member of the Community Board 2 Pier 40 Working Group, asked the mayor about his commitment to the treasured Lower West Side “family sports pier.” De Blasio’s administration kicked in $14 million for the pier along with last year’s approval of the St. John’s Partners project, located directly across the West Side Highway from the pier. Also under the deal, the St. John’s developer paid the Hudson River Park Trust $100 million for air rights from Pier 40 — with the money set to be funneled into repair of the West Houston St. pier’s corroded metal support pilings.

Noting he was speaking for the families and “thousands of children” who use the pier’s playing fields, Miller thanked the mayor for the $114 million for Pier 40, and asked what he will do to ensure the huge structure’s viability for the future.

“We know that this is only the beginning,” Miller said, “and that massive repairs are needed to keep our ball fields and Pier 40 open.” For its users, Miller said, the pier’s community feeling “turns New York into a small town.”

At the same time, he said, the sports-league parents accept the idea that some amount of economic development of Pier 40 is needed to help ensure that both the pier’s and the entire 5-mile-long Hudson River Park’s future well-being. The waterfront park is largely financially self-supporting, and Pier 40, thanks to the millions of dollars in annual revenue from its parking operation, has long been one of the park’s major revenue generators. But the Trust — the state/city authority that runs the park — wants to milk it for even more.

De Blasio put some of the onus on the governor.

“Part of the answer is to get the state into this game,” he said. “I have seen a troubling trend of the state trying to ‘outsource’ costs onto the city. Yes, we are ready to keep making investments, but we want to start getting a clear commitment from the state at the same time.”

James Paget, the new commissioner of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, added, “The city is very committed to seeing the development and complete reconstruction of Pier 40.”

Paget said “the most important next step” is for the park’s governing legislation to be amended in Albany. Apparently, he was referring to the Trust’s plan to redevelop Pier 40 with commercial office space, which the Hudson River Park Act does not allow.

“As soon as we have that, the city will absolutely come to the table to find a solution to all of the crucial issues,” Paget said.

Elizabeth St. Garden supporters recently staged yet another “Wake up!” rally to try to persuade Mayor de Blasio to save the endangered Little Italy green oasis. This time they held their action outside the former Rivington House AIDS hospice, at Forsyth and Rivington Sts. Now primed for residential development, the onetime Lower East Side school building’s scandalous sale has dogged the mayor’s administration. In late 2015, the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services quietly removed the property’s deed restrictions for use as a nonprofit medical facility, and it was subsequently bought, and then soon flipped to a new developer who plans a luxury conversion. The garden advocates say Rivington House — in addition to a number of other local sites — would be a perfect spot for the affordable senior housing the mayor wants to put on Elizabeth St., which would destroy the garden.

Elizabeth St. Garden supporters recently staged yet another “Wake up!” rally to try to persuade Mayor de Blasio to save the endangered Little Italy green oasis. This time they held their action outside the former Rivington House AIDS hospice, at Forsyth and Rivington Sts. Now primed for residential development, the onetime Lower East Side school building’s scandalous sale has dogged the mayor’s administration. In late 2015, the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services quietly removed the property’s deed restrictions for use as a nonprofit medical facility. The building was sold, and then soon flipped to a new developer who plans a luxury conversion. The garden advocates say Rivington House — in addition to a number of other local sites — would be a perfect spot for the affordable senior housing the mayor wants to put on Elizabeth St., which would destroy the garden. Photo by Tequila Minsky

At another point, C.B. 2 member Susan Wittenberg asked de Blasio about saving the full Elizabeth St. Garden — citing what she felt was a similar case in Chelsea.

“Corey was successful on the swap that got the 20th St. park,” in which affordable housing that was slated for that site was moved to another nearby location, she noted. C.B. 2, meanwhile has repeatedly asked the mayor similarly to shift the senior housing development planned for the garden to an alternative site on Hudson St., where “five times” as much affordable housing could be built, Wittenberg said. She noted that everyone’s understanding is that Councilmember Johnson supports the alternative plan. Johnson’s support is tacit, though, since he doesn’t want to openly cross Councilmember Margaret Chin, who is laser-focused on ramming the Elizabeth St. housing plan through to completion — over the vast majority of the community’s objection.

But the mayor stood firm on his position on the divisive issue at the town hall.

“You and your colleagues have done a fine job and have gotten your point across and been everywhere,” de Blasio told her, supportively.

Indeed, the garden advocates have publicly buttonholed the mayor a number of times — including outside the Prospect Park YMCA in Brooklyn as he was entering to do his morning workout, also outside The Cooper Union before he gave a speech on immigration there and while he was being interviewed on Brian Lehrer’s radio show on WNYC.

However, the mayor told Wittenberg, “I’m very much clear that this was the ultimate Solomonic decision. The whole site was [originally] slated for affordable housing and there was no public space. You had an active public space in the interim — and a very good use, obviously,” the mayor said of the thriving community garden space. “The decision I came to was to do a split — where there would still be public space and there would be space for activities, but we could also put in affordable housing for seniors that was desperately needed in the community.”

Ye, under the city’s plan, only about 5,000 square feet would be preserved for public use — or about one-quarter of the current block-through lot.

The gardeners have repeatedly begged de Blasio to come see the unique, sculpture-and-foliage festooned garden for himself.

“I do look forward to visiting the site, I want to see it with my own eyes,” he offered. But he continued, “So, right now that’s where we are, and I don’t see that changing. I believe we’re in the right place — even though I know you disagree.”

Also, if garden activists and C.B. 2 keep offering up alternative sites for the housing, the city will be happy to look at them, he said — but the plan for Elizabeth St. won’t change.

“If there is another site, we will certainly evaluate it,” de Blasio stated, “but not as an ‘either or.’ ”

Following the town hall, Jeannine Kiely, the founder of the Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, issued a statement to The Villager in response to the mayor’s inflexibility.

“Mayor de Blasio and Councilmember Chin have repeatedly ignored our community,” she said, “insisting on a plan to destroy a critical park space — an existing park space that requires no additional capital investment — while ignoring multiple opportunities to create many hundreds of affordable housing units. Their determination to destroy Elizabeth St. Garden, a beautiful park, is chilling. If they succeed, they will have willfully harmed a community starved for open space.”

 

Mayor de Blasio in a light moment during the town hall, as to the right of him, Borough President Gale Brewer and former state Senator Tom Duane listened. Photo by Dennis Lynch

Mayor de Blasio in a light moment during the town hall, as to the right of him, Borough President Gale Brewer and former state Senator Tom Duane listened. Photo by Dennis Lynch

Both de Blasio and Johnson frequently asked people to do more to help flip the state Senate to majority Democratic, citing the Republican-controlled body as a major roadblock for many of the policies the Democratic-controlled City Council wants to make law.

De Blasio was asked about “underfunding” at public schools.

“We need to fight harder” for state funding, de Blasio said, adding, “We will hit 100 percent fair funding for every school by 2021,” as long as current funding remains steady.

Johnson followed him, stressing that if the city wants to better secure school funding, among other things, change is needed in Albany.

“We have to turn the state Senate Democratic,” the councilmember stressed.

On congestion pricing, some may be dismayed to learn that Mayor de Blasio said he “is not there yet.”

Under the traffic-reducing scheme, drivers would be charged more money for being in a certain areas, such as in Manhattan. But the mayor is not convinced it’s the way to approach traffic issues. On the other hand, he is convinced it would not pass through either house in the state Legislature.

When asked broadly about the city “getting out from under the yoke of Albany,” de Blasio said the first thing he would do is “strengthen rent regulation.”

For two years in a row now, the Rent Guidelines Board — which the mayor controls through his appointees on it— has enacted a rent freeze for one-year lease renewals for rent-regulated apartments.

Robin Rothstein, another C.B. 2 member, asked the mayor about helping small businesses stay in business in the face of skyrocketing rents and a deluge of bars. Councilmember Johnson said “commercial rent regulation,”  a form of which has been proposed in the city for years via the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, can’t happen without Albany’s support. To the great frustration of advocates, however, during the course of more than two decades, various versions of the S.B.J.S.A. have never been allowed to come up for a vote in the City Council.

“It’s never going to happen — because of Albany,” Johnson declared. “Let’s turn the state Senate Democratic and then talk about all the wonderful things we want to do in the world.”

Many locals pushed de Blasio about land use.

Jean-Daniel Noland, chairperson of the Clinton / Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee of Community Board 4, asked the mayor personally for help bringing affordable housing to the district. Molly Park, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, announced that her department would issue a request for proposals, or R.F.P., for two affordable sites at Hudson Yards in the late spring or early summer.

D.O.B. Commissioner Rick Chandler was asked about bad-actor landlords who misrepresent their buildings’ status to obtain demolition permits to scare off rent-regulated tenants, which in some cases can be a felony.

“I would love nothing more than to get an owner on a felony if I could,” Chandler said, adding that he was working to close loopholes in D.O.B. permit applications that could allow landlords to misrepresent their buildings. De Blasio added that his administration was hiring more inspectors to help enforce rules.

A public-school teacher asked the mayor about ensuring that immigrant children feel safe in school. De Blasio said that he and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina have told parents and students “that they are respected and protected regardless of their origins.”

“Regardless of their immigration status,” the mayor said, “when they come to their school, they are in someplace safe, and no information will ever be shared with the federal authorities.”

Answering a broader question about the city’s sanctuary policies, he said that the city would provide legal assistance to individuals the city sees as wrongly threatened with deportation.

Heather Campbell, a P.S. 41, parent, asked de Blasio if he was doing anything to decrease school size and to counter policies that may hurt public schools that many expect from Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s secretary of the Department of Education.

“We’re never going to go to vouchers,” de Blasio vowed, speaking of publicly funded grants for students to attend private schools.

However, de Blasio said, budget issues, a growing population and severe overcrowding elsewhere in the city “does not allow us to do as much as we want to on class size.”

Lorraine Grillo, president and C.E.O. of the School Construction Authority, listed some local projects, including the new middle school at 75 Morton St. in the West Village, and two sites “near New York University” and Hudson Square they are “debating.”

Indeed, Village-area school advocates have long pushed for a new public school at Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place — on the current Morton Williams supermarket site on an N.Y.U.-owned superblock — and another one as a promised part of a Trinity Real Estate residential tower planned at Sixth Ave. and Canal St.

A West Village Houses co-op shareholder asked the mayor to help create a better deal than the one the city originally helped broker back in 2004, when the majority of the complex’s owners bought their units. Under the original deal, shareholders were set to lose a tax abatement next year that they have been enjoying since the sale and, in turn, would be hit with a huge property-tax increase. The city has been working to renegotiate the deal — but in return for extending the tax abatement, the co-op owners would not be able to sell their units at market rate for 20 years. Not all the owners are happy with the offer.

“I tend to think we can find our way to something good,” the mayor assured. H.P.D.’s Park said her agency “would very much like” to work something out. Johnson, whose office has been on top of the situation, said he was willing to broker a meeting, and reiterated to Deputy Commissioner Park that the folks at West Village Houses “were not happy with the H.P.D. offer.”

The mayor also fielded questions on public housing. Tenants from the Chelsea-Elliot Houses said they had heard that the city was pushing a new preventative program to exterminate rats at the complex. Speaking more generally, de Blasio said he would fight proposed federal budget cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, hopefully maintaining some funding for the New York City Housing Authority.

Trump’s proposed budget came up again later in the town hall, although city administrators, stressing that the budget was far from final, didn’t get into many specifics. A woman asked how the city’s Department of Environmental Protection would step up to fill in roles of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Trump wants to slash the E.P.A.’s funding by $2.4 billion, or more than a quarter of its current $8.1 billion budget.

“We cannot do everything the E.P.A. does,” de Blasio said. “I think that’s the sad truth. We can use all our powers and work with the state…if we see there is some gap we can legally act on.”

At the town hall’s start, the mayor plugged his plan to consolidate homeless-shelter beds currently in hundreds of hotels and apartments into 90 city-designated shelters, but no one asked him about the plan. Councilmember Johnson, however, is co-sponsoring legislation that seems at odds with the mayor’s plan, which seeks to site shelters in the communities from which people enter the shelter system. The Council legislation, on the other hand, aims to spread the facilities more “equitably” around the city based on the Fair Share principle.

De Blasio also advocated for his “mansion tax” — a 2.5 percent tax on the sale of homes for $2 million or more. The city’s Office of Management and Budget estimates the fee could net $336 million in fiscal year 2018, according to the New York Post. Such a tax has floated around since Governor Mario Cuomo first proposed it, but so far no one has been able to put it into law.

With reporting
by Lincoln Anderson

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