Johnson vows S.B.J.S.A. will finally have hearing, but ‘it’s not a silver bullet’

Council Speaker Corey Johnson speaking at a City Hall press conference this week. Photo by William Alatriste / NYC Council

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | In his first roundtable interview with NYC Community Media as the newly elected City Council speaker, Corey Johnson sat down in his office on Jan. 9 for a lively question-and-answer session with the editorial staffs of The Villager, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and Manhattan Express.

During the nearly one-hour interview, Johnson held forth on a range of pressing issues, from supporting small businesses and creating affordable housing, to congestion pricing and cyclist safety.

His new office is actually a bit smaller than one might imagine for the city’s No. 2 politician. It’s located to one side of the main rotunda, while the mayor’s office mirrors its position on the building’s other side. Johnson’s new digs were still sparsely furnished as of last week. He had hung one poster — an upthrust fist in the Gay Pride colors.

“Yes, that’s my fist,” remarked Johnson, 35, who is openly gay and the Council’s first H.I.V.-positive speaker.

Sitting off to the side on a table were some photos, including one of Johnson with former President Barack Obama.

A pair of large snow boots stood on the floor by a window. It was less than a week after the “snow bomb.”

The first question posed to Johnson was about the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. Does he support it? Will it get a hearing?

“As I said during the speaker’s race and at the first speaker’s forum, I am committed to a hearing on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act,” he said.

At the same time, he noted, he does not plan to run the City Council “with an iron fist,” and the members of the Council’s Small Business Committee will deliberate for themselves on the measure.

“The body is not going to run based on what Corey Johnson wants. The body is going to be run by consensus,” he said. “And it’s not just about who the committee chairpersons are, but who the members are, the composition of the committee.”

Johnson, as speaker, appoints the committee’s chairpersons, plus all their members.

All bills from the previous legislative session — including the S.B.J.S.A. — must now be reintroduced, and a primary sponsor assigned to each one.

“I was one of the sponsors [in the last session] and I was proud to sponsor the Small Business Jobs Survival Act,” Johnson noted.

At the same time, he said of the S.B.J.S.A., “I am supportive of a hearing. But I also think I am not sure that that bill is a silver bullet. The bill does a really important thing: It talks about mediation between landlords who are trying to drastically raise the rent — double, triple, quadruple, quintuple the rent — on small businesses. But I also want us to think in a holistic way about this. Are there things we can do to incentivize landlords — because not all landlords are bad — who want to actually keep a small business? Could we give a property tax abatement on the retail square footage of a building, where they would get a significant property-tax break, so long as they re-sign the lease for a certain amount of years at a low level?”

Asked if he was referring to a bill recently introduced by Councilmember Brad Lander that would do just that, Johnson said, “Exactly.”

However, that bill only encourages landlords with tax breaks — it does not require them to negotiate lease renewals, small business advocates not.

“I believe in looking at a variety of things,” Johnson said. “I believe that the small business loss we are seeing in the Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen and all across the city is a crisis. I want to reiterate, crisis. It’s probably the No. 1 issue that’s asked about to me locally, when I go to community boards and block associations and tenant associations and when I see random people on the street. So, I am fully committed for the Small Business Committee to have a hearing [on the S.B.J.S.A.], and looking at other possible solutions — not in replacement bills of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, but what else can we do to tackle this issue in a meaningful way?”

Asked about the mayor’s plan to shut down Rikers Island, Johnson said he supports the idea, as does a majority of the Council.

He said in some cases, it would not be necessary to build brand-new prisons since existing buildings could be repurposed. He mentioned some of the courthouses, for example, in Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Lower Manhattan District 1.

(As previously reported by The Villager, at a candidates night last May sponsored by the Downtown Democratic political clubs, Johnson was asked whether he supported closing Rikers, and answered that he did, and would even welcome a small jail somewhere in his District 3, which includes the Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. “I’m supportive of a borough-based facility in this district, as long as the community is on board with it and there is consultation,” he said then.)

Asked how he would balance his new role as speaker and being the district’s  representative, he vowed he won’t take his eye off the district.

“I’m glad you asked that question,” he said, declaring, “I am not going to forget — and none of us who are in office should forget — who elected us and where we came from. So, my first obligation as an elected official is to my constituents — 170,000 people who live in my Council district. I’m going to be a very regular presence at community board meetings, block association meetings, tenant association meetings and local events…so I can continue to interact with my wonderful constituents, so that I can continue to interact with them and hear about the issues that matter locally to them.”

Brandishing a few sheets of paper with a list of what he called “50 different things I’m working on locally,” he rattled off “parks, schools, transportation issues, infrastructure projects, landmarking, land-use deals, subway upgrades that all affect the district.

“I’m going to be the leader of this body,” he assured, “while at the same time not losing the focus on the district that I represent and the everyday needs of these incredible neighborhoods: West Soho, Hudson Square, Greenwich Village, the West Village, the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, Flatiron, Hell’s Kitchen, Clinton, a little bit of the Upper West Side, Columbus Circle, Times Square, Hudson Yards, the Theater District, the Garment District, Hudson Yards, the High Line, Penn Station, Moynihan Station, the Port Authority bus station, the Javits Center, the Whitney Museum, Sheridan Square — the list goes on. It’s a dynamic district. It’s a big district.”

Although each Council district represents 170,000 people, Johnson noted, “The average daily population of this district is over 2 million people — so I face challenges that other councilmembers don’t have to deal with.”

He said he has also hired additional people to work in his district office.

“I’m not going to forget where I came from,” he promised.

Housing issues are also at the top of constituents’ concerns, he said. He said the Council must continue to push legislation to protect tenants and ensure that the budget has enough funds allocated for tenant issues.

Asked if certain land-use issues could be revisited now that Johnson is the new Council speaker — such as the New York University superblocks development plan that was approved several years ago or the Elizabeth St. Garden senior housing plan, which still has not been voted on yet, for example — Johnson indicated No.

“I’m looking forward, not looking backward,” he said, bluntly. “Elizabeth St. Garden is not in my district. I have a huge amount of respect for Councilmember Chin. She’s a good colleague. I’ve worked very well with her. The land-use decisions here in the Council are some of the most fraught and controversial because of the impact it has on local neighborhoods across the city.”

However, he said he wants to ensure that the Council’s Land-Use Division is “more proactive and responsive to councilmember and communities at the beginning of the process,” referring to the seven-month-long ULURP (Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure).

“No councilmember has a veto on a project in their district,” he noted, “but a lot of deference is paid, because, by and large, councilmembers are the ones who know their district the best. … I’m going to pay a huge amount of deference to individual members when it comes to their districts. … If you talk to all 50 other members, the best policy is to give a lot of deference to members when it comes to individual projects in their own districts.”

By “a veto on a project,” Johnson was referring to projects with citywide impact — meaning a councilmember cannot necessarily nix something planned for his or her district if it is of importance to the whole city.

On congestion pricing, Johnson said he supports tolling the East River bridges and the MoveNY plan to reduce tolls on other borough crossings “to create some equity there.” He also backs a surcharge on for-hire vehicles that would then be invested into mass transit.

“The No. 1 thing we have to do as it relates to congestion and air quality and cyclist safety is to decrease and disincentivize cars from coming into Manhattan,” he said. “This is a holistic issue.”

He said he hopes the state Senate takes action on congestion pricing, while he knows the Assembly and governor already support it. He said he has backed congestion pricing for years.

“I’m not wedded to any specifics,” Johnson added, other than that he supports congestion pricing, in general, and creating transit equity in underserved boroughs, like Queens.

In terms of cyclist safety, he said, “Even though not many constituents are fans of bike lanes — I hear it many times — I support these because people’s lives are on the line.”

Two cyclists were killed by buses in Chelsea this past year, he noted. Yet, while committed to protecting cyclists’ safety, he stressed cyclists must not ride wildly.

“That doesn’t mean cyclists shouldn’t obey the law,” he said. “They should obey traffic signals. They shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk. They shouldn’t be going against traffic. They should ensure they aren’t hitting pedestrians. … We need to continue to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

“The motto goes: ‘Pedestrians first, cyclists second, vehicles last.’ That’s the order of priority for calming our streets and making our streets safe.”

This article covers some of the issues discussed during the first half of NYC Community Media’s interview with Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Jan. 9. Next week, The Villager will report on some of the issues discussed during the interview’s second half.

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