Fighting for a city for humans — not developers

Ray Rogers, of the Campaign to Stop REBNY Bullies, spoke out about the influence of big real estate on the city. Tribeca’s Lynn Ellsworth, of Human-Scale NYC, center, organized the rally. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Sun., Oct. 21, 2:30 p.m.: They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore!

More than 200 people from more than 50 activist and community groups from around the city rallied in front of City Hall on the afternoon of Sat., Oct. 13, in a wide-ranging protest against trends that are changing the fundamental nature of New York as a livable place for the people already here.

The protest was organized by Tribeca resident Lynn Ellsworth, of the group Human-Scale NYC.

The main theme connecting the diverse groups was that they were all there to protest “against overdevelopment and big real estate giveaways at the expense of our neighborhoods and the people who already live in them.”

Chief among the targets of the demonstrators’ ire were what they called Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “affordable housing scams” and his neighborhood rezoning plans.

Affordable housing is a big part of the equation for a livable city, advocates said.

The rezoning schemes, speakers said, are actually forcing out immigrant and low-income New Yorkers. Speakers and signs throughout the group similarly blasted the megatowers going up in the Two Bridges neighborhood.

Zishun Ning, who was a member of the Chinatown Working Group, angrily called de Blasio “a fraud.” The working group created a community-based rezoning plan that included the Two Bridges area, but the city rejected it.

“He’s pushing all these pro-developer rezoning plans across the city, kicking out families, kicking out small business, destroying jobs,” Ning shouted. “In Chinatown and the Lower East Side, we are proposing a community-led rezoning plan, the Chinatown Working Group plan. It would stop these high-rise luxury developments. And what did the mayor do to us? He said ‘No!’ We are too ambitious!” Ning railed, as the crowd booed.

“How come you can help the developers have their rezoning plan, but when communities get together, you say we are too ambitious? Without this rezoning plan, we have seen all these luxury developments coming up. One is already come up 80 stories, Extell tower, which you can see from here. And there are four others being proposed, each at least 60 stories high.

“And now the mayor is saying, ‘Yes, I will give you low-income housing.’ In fact, it’s free! It’s a 40-story jail. This mayor claims he’s fighting for immigrants. But what he’s doing in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, he’s kicking out immigrant families. He claims that he’s fighting Trump, but in fact he’s helping people like Trump. He’s a total fraud!”

Two huge banners held by protesters at the top of City Hall’s steps proclaimed, “No Jail,” referring to the mayor’s plan to create a high-rise prison on Centre St. as part of a sweeping plan to close the city’s existing centralized jail, which is located far away from residential areas, on Rikers Island.

Joseph Reiver, head of the Elizabeth St. Garden, called on the mayor to spare it from a development project that the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood opposes.

“Elizabeth St. Garden is the only real public green space in Soho and Little Italy,” Reiver said. “And yet it is under threat from being destroyed and developed. We get over 100,000 people visiting the garden a year — from the neighborhood, from the city, from all around the world. They’re shocked and saddened to learn that the city wants to destroy such a peaceful and precious space. They always ask why, how could they do this? We say it’s for nonpermanent affordable housing, office space and luxury retail.

“We do need affordable housing – but it needs to be truly affordable housing and permanently affordable housing,” Reiver said. “This is why our community and our community board has found an alternative site [at Hudson and Clarkson Sts.] for this plan. It’s a city-owned gravel lot and it could provide five times the amount of housing and additional green space. What’s the problem? The mayor, Councilmember Margaret Chin, they do not prioritize public green space. They’ve taken Elizabeth St. Garden and our community and they’ve pitted us against the need for affordable housing with this flimsy idea of ‘either or.’ It’s flimsy and it’s misleading.

“We stand to lose another iconic New York City place,” Reiver stressed. “Oftentimes, I feel that city processes like ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] — they allow just enough community input to make us think that our voices are heard. For this city to truly progress, our electeds and our city agencies need to listen, they need to truly listen.”


Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning plans were criticized by the protesters as actually pushing out low-income, working-class and immigrant New Yorkers, and generally destroying existing, established neighborhoods. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Developers were depicted as “Godizillas,” stomping through and destroying historic neighborhoods where people already live. Photo by John Massengale

Steve Barrison, of the Small Business Congress, blasted Monday’s upcoming hearing on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act in advance as a “sham,” and derided City Hall as “REBNY Hall,” referring to the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, which opposes the bill. He said the S.B.C. actually would boycott the hearing in protest.

“This crisis, the biggest group hurt, are the immigrants,” Barrison emphasized, referring to immigrant store owners. “There are empty stores on every commercial strip in all five boroughs. Gentrification began…the very first victims were the mom-and-pops and Main St. We started the Small Business Jobs Survival Act because they had no rights. The system is rigged by REBNY. I know it. You know it. REBNY knows it.

“The chairperson of the Small Business Committee is an owner of real estate who is on record against any regulation — commercial, residential — of any kind. Why?” Barrison asked, then chanted “Rah! Rah!” to which the crowd responded, “Rigged by REBNY Hall!” Throughout his speech, he repeatedly did this call-and-response with the protesters to highlight his charge that the administration is in the pocket of big real estate.

“This is just like the rigged hearings in Washington, D.C.,” Barrison said, likening Monday’s S.B.J.S.A. hearing to the Judge Kavanaugh Senate hearings. “They changed the name here to ‘commercial rent control.’ That’s a lie. It’s not commercial rent control. The sham REBNY show is a scam. We are boycotting.”

Steve Banks, the president of REBNY, lately has taken to branding the S.B.J.S.A. “commercial rent control.” However, the S.B.J.S.A. would create a situation where tenants whose leases are expiring can go through mediation with their landlords and, if necessary, binding arbitration to achieve a new 10-year lease. On the other hand — similar to residential rent regulation — commercial rent control would involve capping citywide how much rents could rise each year for commercial tenants.

“Ask them are they going to pass this without playing games?” Barrison said of the City Council. “Ask them will they stop playing with the legal issues that don’t exist – it’s an excuse to water down the bill.”

Another speaker, Michael White, of Citizens Defending Libraries, angrily slammed the administration selling off public libraries on valuable land for private luxury-development projects. He was outraged at the demolition of the Brooklyn Heights library branch for a new 36-story condo building by Hudson Companies.

Developers everywhere in the city were under attack at the protest. These activists, above, lumped the Hudson River Park Trust — the state-city authority that runs the 4.5-mile-long Lower West Side waterfront park — right in with the developers. The Trust is now legally allowed to sell unused development rights from its commercial piers to developers building on the other side of the West Side Highway. Photo by Cathryn Swan.

“Overdevelopment is crowding our streets, crowding our subways, taking our parks. It is displacing long-term residents who have been here. It’s selling our sky to oligarchs,” Ellsworth said at the rally’s end. “And it’s demolishing way to much of our historic city. They’re shadowing not just Central Park, but entire neighborhoods [with megatowers and supertall towers]. If we continue to let this happen, our whole city is going to be one big Hudson Yards. And that is a world that is hostile to living things. Why are we losing so many neighborhoods — from East Harlem to Inwood to Lower East Side?

“It’s become clear that our politicians, our regulatory agencies and even our community boards have been captured by big real estate,” Ellsworth charged. “And to fight this, we are going to have to find new people to run for office who will not take any real estate money.

“We are going to have to fix the rules of the game that stack the deck against us. We are going to have to remake a city democracy,” she said, as the crowd cheered.

Also speaking at the end of the rally, just before Ellsworth, was Upper East Side Councilmember Ben Kallos, who noted he has vowed not to take any real estate money in upcoming campaigns, and didn’t in his last two elections, either. Afterward, The Villager asked Kallos about the 800-foot-tall Sutton Place tower project in his district, and Kallos said he blocked it by dint of his “single vote” against it.

“They’re holding up the Sutton rezoning,” he stated. “We stopped the building. They never did the foundation.”

That rezoning is currently tied up in court in an Article 78 lawsuit against the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

“Gale Brewer also always does the right thing,” Kallos said. “I could not have stopped the overdevelopment in the Sutton Place area without her,” he said, referring to the Manhattan borough president.

West Side Assemblymember Dick Gottfried also attended the rally, but did not speak. Ellsworth said politicians were welcome to attend, but that they actually were asked only to listen, not speak. Kallos, though, managed to get in some remarks.

However, David Eisenbach, the leader of Friends of S.B.J.S.A., told The Villager that Kallos is not entitled to a free pass, since he voted for the very same projects affecting districts outside of his own that many of the protesters were decrying.

“Ben’s got to take responsibility for his votes on East Harlem, Inwood [rezonings], the Tech Hub and Elizabeth St. Garden,” he said.

Eisenbach didn’t give remarks because he was told “no politicians” were supposed to speak. While he’s not actually a politician, he previously ran for public advocate, and intends to do so again in an upcoming special election expected to be held this February or March.

One Response to Fighting for a city for humans — not developers

  1. Cities MUST be for humans… not for developers, cars, politics…

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