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Photo via @NYSCapitolTours


While the ethics trainings and orientation for new state legislators may have evolved over the years, one thing has remained constant: the daunting task of navigating the Capitol’s maze-like corridors during one’s first weeks of work in Albany.

Orientation provides some roadmap to Albany’s byzantine legislative processes, including workshops in drafting bills, organizing a press conference, and conducting research, and legislative staffers are provided for support, but it can take a few weeks, if not months, for newly minted politicians to fully acclimate to life as a state lawmaker.

In fact, much of the training happens on the job, according Assemblymember Tom McKevitt, who oversees the trainings for incoming Assembly members in the chamber’s Republican minority.

“For many people they are coming to a different part of the state, they are leaving their families, leaving their hometowns, to come to a very different place,” said McKevitt, who represents part of Long Island, and has served in the Assembly for just over a decade. “New York State government is a massive operation. It really is. So we try to give them as much knowledge as possible and give them as much resources as possible to get them as productive a start to their legislative careers.”

All new legislators in the Senate and the Assembly receive mandated training when they begin their legislative careers in Albany. In addition, each party conference provides training, as McKevitt indicated for the Assembly minority.

NEW LEGISLATORS

* AM Yuh-Line Niou
* Sen. Jamaal Bailey
* AM Robert Carroll
* AM Carmen De La Rosa
* AM Tremaine Wright
* AM Stacey Pheffer Amato
* Sen. Marisol Alcantara
* AM Clyde Vanel
* AM Brian Barnwell
* AM Inez Dickens

This year, there are 10 new state lawmakers from New York City, joining the 150-seat Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats, and the 63-seat Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Republicans. All of the new reps from the city are Democrats -- there are only a handful of New York City Republicans in the Legislature altogether, mostly from Staten Island.

Gotham Gazette began interviewing each of those 10 new members in February to gauge how they are adjusting to life in the state Legislature, which is notoriously dysfunctional and insulated, and has seen its share of corruption scandals in recent years.

While the first weeks of the legislative calendar leading up to one-house budgets in March are always fairly intense for new legislators, this year appears to have been more so. As with other state capitals and city halls around the country, the inauguration of President Donald Trump, followed by the unconventional president’s chaotic first two months in office, have cast a long shadow over governing in New York.

As the Trump administration rushes to follow through on campaign promises to scale back reproductive rights, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and ban immigrants from select countries, many legislators, especially Democrats, are feeling more uncertainty and a greater sense of urgency. Both come in part from their constituents -- New Yorkers who overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in November.

Several incoming lawmakers hailing from the five boroughs are facing challenging political climates in their districts and given local political dynamics. Yuh-Line Niou, now representing Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District, must deliver for a constituency accustomed to receiving an exceptionally high level of resources given that the seat had been held for decades by (now convicted) former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The 31st Senate District’s new representative, Marisol Alcantara, is a member of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), at a time when the breakaway group of Democrats that forms a coalition majority with Republicans is facing some significant backlash. Meanwhile, Senator Jamaal Bailey, of the 36th Senate District, is joining the mainline Senate Democratic Conference that is struggling in the minority.

To begin our series on new city-based state legislators, Gotham Gazette spoke with Niou, Bailey, and Brooklyn Assemblymember Robert Carroll. Read their interviews through the links below, and stay tuned for our interviews with the seven other new lawmakers from the five boroughs.

 

yuh line niou2
Yuh-Line Niou

Assemblymember for the 65th District
Lower Manhattan
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“This is a constituency that literally had the most service and then almost no service for a period of time. It’s been a shock to the system.”
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou


jamaal bailey
Jamaal Bailey

State Senator for the 36th District
Parts of the Bronx and Mount Vernon
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“But a lot of the preparation, it just comes in real-time. Just seeing the bill and you have to vote on it.”
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Senator Jamaal Bailey


robert carroll 2
Robert Carroll

Assembly Member for 44th District
Brooklyn (Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Park Slope, Flatbush)
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“I think if you are going to be in politics, you have to understand that you’re not going to win every fight, and you have to be ready to stay in the arena.” 
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Assembly Member Robert Carroll


 

New York As Oasis: OASIS mapping, Bloomingdale W Island Toursoods, Governors


Open Space Research

What would your neighborhood look like if vacant lots and abandoned buildings became green space? What percentage of parks does it have compared to other communities? Are there wetlands or wildlife areas that ought to be protected? For the first time, the comprehensive and detailed information needed to make these determinations is available to anyone with access to the Internet. The New York City Open Space Information System Cooperative (OASIS) has created an interactive mapping and analysis tool of New York City's open space resources. The site builds upon the new aerial photo-images of the five boroughs used in the basemap recently created by the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, as well as detailed land use information on each tax parcel in New York City. It incorporates data from numerous city, state, and federal agencies, as well as community garden sites identified by the Council on the Environment for New York City.

The site, www.oasisnyc.net, allows users to create land use maps or aerial photo views by borough, neighborhood, community board or zip code, and to zoom into those maps to see details, such as vacant lots, more closely. Zoning and ownership information can also be obtained for each parcel. The site also provides land use statistics by community board or borough. Overlays show wetlands, as well as population density and income levels from the 1990 census. More informational layers are planned, including environmental problem sites and neighborhood tree data. There are inaccuracies, which is to be expected in a project this large using not always up-to-date information from government agencies, but users can help by providing corrections and updates through a feedback link.

OASIS was created through a collaborative effort of more than 30 government agencies, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and private companies, led by the U.S. Forest Service. The New York Public Interest Research Group's Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP) is the primary architect of the web site.

Bloomingdale Woods: Wetlands or Not?

The effort by environmentalists on Staten Island to stop the construction of ball fields in eastern Bloomingdale Park received another setback. The environmental group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, believes the forested natural area has far more extensive wetlands than the state has delineated. In March, however, the group's appeal of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's decision not to map the wetlands in the park was denied by Freshwater Wetlands Appeals Board. Protectors wants to see ball fields located in other less environmentally sensitive areas, locations they also say would be a lot more practical and cost-effective than a forested, hilly park with scattered wet areas that was originally protected for its natural values. There is tremendous pressure from sports groups and local politicians to build the $12 million recreation complex to provide much-needed playing fields for youth sports in south Staten Island. A final Environmental Impact Statement on the project is due to be released in mid-April. Protectors is conducting its own wetlands mapping workshops at the park this spring. For information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Governors Island tours
Free walking tours of the former Coast Guard base in New York harbor are being offered this spring and summer. The tours include the island's two historic forts, which, along with 20 acres of surrounding land, were declared the country's newest national monument by President Clinton just before he left office. Last year, Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki agreed on a plan that would make the island a new public space, with educational facilities, a conference center, and parkland. But the federal General Services Administration is planning to sell the rest of island this year, unless legislation or negotiation by state to purchase the land is successful. The tours run on the following Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. - noon: May 2, July 11, August 1, and September 5. There will be a June 6 tour from 2-4 p.m. To register, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Anne Sounds Off

In a recent Op-ed piece in the New York Times, Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history at Columbia University, discusses what New York City needs to do to capitalize on the last decade's population increase, reflected in the 2000 census. He credits a sharp decline in crime as well as the excitement and crowds - "bustling sidewalks, outdoor restaurants and funky galleries" - with bringing young professionals back into the city. Yet, he says, "if New York....is to return to the glory of its past, then average men and women must choose to remain in the city after they have children." How to get them to do that? His solution is to improve the schools, which is obviously critical. But then what? Professor Jackson leaves out something that is essential to making the city more livable. What else do people seek when they move to the suburbs? A little bit of nature, lawns and shady streets for kids to play on, ball fields and pools and tennis courts. New York City lags behind most major cities in usable park acreage and recreational facilities per capita. To keep families in the city, we need to make an investment not only in the schools, but also in our parks and playing fields. We need to bring more green into the heart of the city.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

Trends Transforming America's Urban Parks


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High Line Park photo by David Berkowitz, used under a Creative Commons license.


NEW YORK — The extraordinary greening of New York City over the past decade is part of  — and inspiration for — a nationwide urban parks revival that has been growing over the past two decades.

In a sign of the movement’s strength, some 870 people from 200 cities and 21 countries gathered earlier this month for the Greater & Greener urban parks conference, co-sponsored by the City Parks Alliance and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Just about every city has one or more major park projects under way,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, which researches park best practices and benefits, and maintains a database on U.S. city park systems.

Driving this momentum is an evolution in the way parks are viewed: Once relegated to the sidelines, an amenity that could be dispensed with in tough times, parks are now seen as central to a city’s quality of life by public officials, civic leaders and citizens.

“It feels like parks have come into the public consciousness,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, the conference co-sponsor.
 
One measure of this, she said, is the diverse roster of people who attended the conference, the fourth presented by the alliance.

The previous events attracted mostly park professionals and advocates. But this year, there were mayors, real estate developers, health care professionals and advocates, corporations, philanthropists and landscape designers and planners.

Further evidence of the reach of the urban parks movement is a new commitment by the National Park Service to better connect inner-city residents with its urban national parks.  

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in his keynote speech, used the occasion to announce the formalization of a partnership between the National Park Service and the city parks department to manage Jamaica Bay’s 10,000 acres of city and federal parkland.

The concept of a park is broadening, too.

“Parks are less isolated pockets of greenery and more a part of the urban infrastructure,” Nagel said.

Europeans have a much more expansive view of parks “as public spaces between buildings — the green glue that holds a city together,” said Helle Søholt, co-founding partner and managing director of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen.

But you don’t have to look further than Madison Square Park or Times Square, where pedestrian plazas have staked out turf formerly occupied by cars, to get a feel for that idea.

Here are four trends in urban parks from this year's conference:

Parks as part of our health care, educational and social services system

With a growing body of research showing that access to outdoor open space and recreation improves physical and mental health, many sessions focused on ways parks can be designed or managed to fight obesity, improve education, and partner with social service agencies.

“Parks are as fundamental to health and well-being as a clinic or hospital,” said Dr. Daphne Miller, of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Mickey Fearn, National Park Service deputy director for communications and community assistance, said parks are spaces for spontaneous outdoor play, as well as programs that connect young people to the outdoors and nature.

He also said they provide experiences that help young people, especially those living in disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods, succeed and participate in a “powerful way in their communities."

As an example, he cited Rocking the Boat, the South Bronx youth organization that teaches teenagers to build boats and involves them in conservation efforts along the waterfront in “an area where they didn’t even know had water.”

Nontraditional ways of creating parks

Space for new parks is scarce in many cities and neighborhoods. New parks are being built in unlikely places: elevated rail lines, reclaimed brownfields and even long-covered rivers that are “daylighted” and restored.

Conference participants got a look at some of New York City’s solutions for shoehorning parks into a densely built cityscape, including the park-in-progress at Staten Island’s former Fresh Kills landfill, the largest park to be built in New York City in more than 100 years, and one of the scores of schoolyards that have been transformed into student-designed community public space.

Parks as environmental infrastructure

New York City, Philadelphia, and many other cities are making a major investment in designing green roofs, streetside swales, specially engineered tree pits and other natural systems to help address its sewage overflow problems after heavy rainstorms.

This green infrastructure soaks up and slows down runoff before it overwhelms the sewer system, while also adding more green space in the city.

Sessions on sustainable park design for creating parks that serve as buffers for climate change and for preserving biodiversity underscored a new focus on parks as ecological systems.

Funding parks in an era of fiscal constraints

Even in a good economy, funding parks is a challenge. Finding innovative and equitable ways to pay for creating and maintaining parks was a major theme of the conference. Among the ideas explored were the establishment of conservancies and other forms of private funding, the role of developers in creating public space, partnerships with water and highway departments, and voter-approved dedicated funding.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett spoke about his city’s investment of public funds for a multitude of civic and greening projects to breathe new life into a hollowed-out downtown, making it a place that attracts and keeps residents and businesses.

Since 1993, Oklahoma City voters have passed a series of penny sales-tax initiatives, the most recent to fund a new 70-acre central park, riverfront recreation, and biking trails, among other things.

In an interview in The Dirt, the blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he said: “We convinced people who live in the suburbs that the quality of life downtown is important….you can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

In his keynote speech, Mayor Bloomberg also stressed the economic growth that flows from investing in urban parks.

Speaking from a stage decorated to look like a pocket park — with the ubiquitous green portable cafĂ© tables and chairs, a bench flanked by greenery, and a bicycle — he noted the attraction of good city parks to everyone from a young person starting a career to a family raising children in the city to a business leader deciding where to locate.

“In a tough economy, we know it’s important to keep investing in what makes a city inviting to businesses and new residents,” he said. “The time to make the investment is tough times. The city walked away from its future during the 70s. We did not do that this time.”



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