The four Democratic candidates for mayor discussed issues of historic preservation at a series of forums sponsored by coalition of groups, including Landmark West, the Historic Districts Council, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The following is an edited transcript of the candidate’s opening remarks and a sample of some of the questions from the audience. Anthony Weiner spoke on June 1, 2005.
The issues surrounding preservation and the landmarks, to me, provide the perfect metaphor for what I argue is the problem with the Bloomberg administration. It really comes down to three fundamental things that I talk about everywhere on the campaign trail. First of all, I believe that we have somehow internalized this notion that the only way to run New York City is to put blinders on when you’re at City Hall, put your head down, and barrel into problems, consulting as few people as possible. I think Rudy Giuliani instilled that in us with his notion that in order to make an omelet, you’ve gotta break a lot of eggs. And Mike Bloomberg has continued the tradition of eschewing democratic - with a small “d” - institutions as a way of making decisions.
In New York, we have the most creative land use planners, the most creative architects, and the most creative urban planners. If we took the 50 most brilliant New Yorkers in those fields, put them in a room and said “We have a couple dozen acres on the west side of Manhattan, with unobstructed four-directional views. Come up with the most creative, most beneficial use of that land.” Do any of us think that they would have emerged with a stadium as an idea for that land? It never would have happened.
It’s not just a matter of process. If you think about it, it’s a matter of real dollars and cents. Mayor Bloomberg, when he constructed this effort to by-pass public input, he suggested that we get $100 million for the land over the Hudson rail yards. Some people literally believe it is worth about $1 billion. How does Mayor Bloomberg explain why he was prepared to sell something for $100 million that is actually worth closer to $1 billion?
His apparent sense that these democratic institutions are not helpful also can be seen in education policy. He didn’t consult teachers, didn’t consult principals, and didn’t consult other elected officials when reorganizing the school system. And almost to a person, teachers say the system is worse off, and some of the best, most senior teachers are being driven from the system.
You see the exact same thing when it comes to landmarks decisions, when it comes to preservation decisions. There are decisions that are being made without even public hearings. Public hearings are messy, they’re contentious, and they may slow things down. But they make them more New York. We are a city that should not eschew those democratic processes. We should embrace them.
A second thing that his approach to landmarks shows is that Mike Bloomberg believes that passive is better than active and aggressive when you’re the mayor of the city of New York. The most important example of this is how we get rolled by Albany, rolled by Washington because the mayor has adopted this philosophy that I’m going to raise money for my Republican friends, I’m going to throw a large convention for my Republican friends, and just hope for good things to happen.
And is there better evidence of that philosophy than lower Manhattan? You know, Mike Bloomberg essentially, and he doesn’t even deny it all that much anymore, made this deal. He said to Governor Pataki, let me develop the far west side of Manhattan, let me pursue my Olympic dream, and you, Governor Pataki, you take care of lower Manhattan. Any New Yorker, any resident of New York City that doesn’t realize it’s a mistake to entrust Governor Pataki with anything to do with New York City honestly doesn’t deserve to be a public official in New York City.
I mean, when was the last time Governor Pataki got up in the morning, dressed and looked in the mirror, and said “I’m going do something good for New York City this morning?” It never happens.
“I drive by the far West Side and I see that giant glass thing they are building there and I’m sure someone thinks it’s very attractive, and Sean Penn will be very happy living there I’m sure, but you know the real Greenwich Village is not that.”
So, this notion that you just sit back and hope that good things happen might be the ethos that works in the business community that Mayor Bloomberg thrived in, but it doesn’t work when it comes for advocating for New York City.
And if you think that it’s just a matter of style over substance, think about this: imagine, for a moment, if Mike Bloomberg stood up at the Republican National Convention and said “Come to our hotels, our fine restaurants, visit out cultural institutions, and oh, by the way, it’s an outrage that we’ve been short-changed $1.7 billion in the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s a crime the way you’re playing immigrants against one another in order to get votes. And the way you’ve short-changed us on anti-terrorism money is a sin.” What would it have done? Visualize that for a moment. It would have elevated those issues, not just to the front page of New York City newspapers. It would have been all of the talk of the country for the next three or four days. President Bush would have had to insert a line in his speech about how we’re going try to make it up to New York in the future. You would have had delegates scrambling around, how do we respond to this?
Active is better than passive, and the same is true when you’re trying to preserve the fundamental beauty of New York City. You cannot simply sit back and say make these decisions based on the next bid for the next building. We’re going to wait to see what type of community uprising leads to the next preservation movement. Preservation and planning has to be an active endeavor. You cannot simply sit back. By it’s very nature, preservation fails if you are reacting rather than being proactive.
The third argument I’m going to make throughout this campaign - and I’m going to make it in the context of land use decisions and everything else - is that we need, we, as Democrats in particular, but I think all of us in this city, are entitled to have a campaign based on the notion that ideas matter.
What you’re going to do for the next four years matters. I’ve put out a book of 50 new ideas. We put it out about four months ago. I’ve given nine policy speeches. The New York Times called me the “wonk” of the campaign, although that was probably something that would get me beaten up growing up in Brooklyn, being called the “wonk,” but it’s something I take great pride in. On that issue after issue, I have said what the next four years are going to be about. And I don’t know how many of you speak Spanish, I don’t speak it very well, but the ads he’s been running in Spanish has a tag line which is something like “The best is yet to come.”
I have yet to hear Mike Bloomberg articulate his vision for the next four years in this city. Does it include changes to the education system? What are his development initiatives that he’s going to put forth beyond the Olympic games? What is his vision?
In my first speech about economic development in all five boroughs, I said that I believe it is time for a comprehensive rezoning of the city of New York. It’s required every 40 years or so, history tells us. The last time was 1961 when we did a comprehensive rezoning. It is a gut-wrenching, painful, agonizing, controversial thing, but it’s necessary. We are, right now, allowing the most fundamental decisions about the character of our communities to be made in the most ad hoc of basis. I don’t think that’s the way to do things.
I think we have to make some fundamental decisions, not just about how we preserve the fundamental nature of communities. I represent neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens where the landscape is changing day-by-day, by default.
We have homes in Manhattan Beach, for example, completely according to the contextual zoning, and people are building on their front lawns. It’s not prohibited, but who ever would have imagined you’d want to? Whoever imagined that this bungalow community of 30 years ago would now have homes selling for $1 million? Who would imagine that the land is so valuable in Douglaston, or in Sheepshead Bay, or in Staten Island that people would raze these beautiful homes and build on every square inch these most ugly, boxy McMansions?
In order for us to deal with these things, we can’t just say “Ocean Parkway needs a rezoning, let’s go do it“ or “Douglaston needs a preservation movement, let’s go do it” or “the west side has beautiful buildings that are now being consumed by the sky-rocketing property values.” I believe part of leadership in this city is saying we have specific ideas going forward and, even if they’re difficult, we have to pursue them.
One of the things that I will be doing after I’m elected is appoint a commission to start the task of rezoning the city, and looking at where we want light manufacturing to exist or where maybe housing should be permitted to go, where the heavy manufacturing zones are. Do a comprehensive analysis of where the brownfields are, and how we, as the city, state, and federal government can help make those lands useful again. We have to start taking a look at the west side of Manhattan. We have to take a look at things like the community here and 2 Columbus Circle, and say at the very least, let’s have a hearing, let’s see what people have to say, and let’s have a discussion about the outcomes.
One of the things that I would hope all New Yorkers would demand in this election, not only from those of us who are challenging Michael Bloomberg, but from the mayor himself, is to ask: What is your vision going forward? Does it include closed-loop insider decision-making? Does it include back-on-your-heels, sit-back-and-see-what-happens types of decisions, rather than being active and aggressive? What are your specific plans?
I think we need to change the way we’ve done things on all three levels.
ARE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS WORTH ANYTHING?
Q: When any major development is undertaken in New York, as you know, there needs to be an Environmental Impact Statement produced to assess among other thing the historic resources in the area of development. But these statements seem to be coming up with fewer and fewer historic resources. In the case of Williamsburg/Greenpoint, the impact statement came up with 18 historic resources, 11 of which were already designated as historic landmarks. The Municipal Art Society went out with the help of Columbia University students and identified 55 resources and 2 historic districts. So my question to you is, what do you think the root of this problem is? And where do you think the responsibility lies for doing better ones and how would you go about making that happen?
Weiner: That’s a great question. I think over the course of time, Environmental Impact Statements have become more and more tools of development rather than what they were intended to be, which is kind of a stopgap to make sure that questions were raised and addressed. How I would address this problem is fundamentally providing much more transparency throughout these processes and using technology and public input to be able to do a lot more of these things.
I’ll give you an example. If an Environmental Impact Statement was constructed for the West Side of Manhattan or for Williamsburg that invited people to submit historic locations, landmark locations, perhaps “undiscovered jewel” locations in our communities and that public document became completely transparent, it would put pressure on those who produce the statement to either justify or reject them for some good reason.
I think that kind of public input would help. But I’ll tell you, this is the tip of a larger problem. Overall, I would argue that government in recent years has gotten less and less and less transparent, despite the idea that technology makes it easier to be more and more and more transparent. And one of my greatest disappointments with Mike Bloomberg is, putting party affiliation aside, he seemed to be a reform guy. He was self-funded. He wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican and he wasn’t really from the institutional machines. He seems like he would be the perfect type of agent to truly reform and open up government, give us more input and give institutions like this greater say, not necessarily have your way all the time, but greater say.
I would argue that this administration has become more closed with information than ever before, and doesn’t make the use of technology that would be the most valuable. You know he brags, Mike Bloomberg does, about the 311 system. You know if I had a business and I opened up a complaint box that got 5 million complaints every year, I’m not sure I’d be bragging about it. But at the very least, perhaps what he should do is take the 311 line and make some of the reports more public, maybe that would be a good indicator to the rest of us about whether things are going as well as he suggested. But one of the things that I would do on Environmental Impact Statement is to make the process more open to community input. If you are a resident in the community or a historian in the community and you know of locations, you report them to us, give us the historical significance and then as part of the statement we should have to respond to that.
REFORMING THE LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION
Q: What reforms of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, their rules, or even reform of the law itself do you propose?
Weiner: At a very fundamental level, these decisions are subjective decisions, based on people’s creative inputs, based on viewpoint, and two people can look at a building or an area and they come to two completely different decisions about how it should be treated. Which is why government at the very least should provide hearings for these things. I see no harm that comes to having that packed room of people saying different things and having different conclusions and presenting different evidence. I fully believe that the Bloomberg administration has certain contempt for just that discussion; they think that that’s untidy and they don’t want to do that. I am not going to commit to you now in terms of a specific reform, but one thing I will say to you is that I fundamentally believe that better outcomes come from people mixing it up on these issues.
When I’m mayor of the City of New York, I’ll come to this exact spot, and I’ll talk to you about how we are doing in the administration. We’ll talk a little about what your views are, we’ll do this and this isn’t just in the confines of communities like this that get animated around the global issue of landmarking. You have to realize that preservation of our communities has become a rallying cry in communities all throughout the city right now.
This has become a fundamental issue in the campaign that I think the mayor is ignoring. How is he dealing with these fires? By putting them out one by one based on, what I would say, is a political map. I mean if you really look at it that’s what it looks like he’s doing. What my administration would be committed to is at least having a broader discussion, having hearings, allowing the media to view them, allowing experts to take a look at them, allowing experts around the city, allowing amateurs around the city to express their views. I do not feel offended that having open hearings is going to muck up the works.
Will I say to you that I want 20 council members or 3 community boards being able to nominate something? No, I won’t say that specifically now, but I am open to the idea of having a process that at least gets hearings to happen on a more regular basis. To not even having a hearing on 2 Columbus Circle is mind-boggling.
Q: What would you do about funding and the level of staffing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission?
Weiner: Well one thing is for sure, we have the Buildings Department with hundreds and hundreds of employees and they can’t seem to get anything right. In Manhattan Beach, you know we had this long period of time where Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay had laid fallow for a bunch of reasons, the economy went south, and the Lundy estate was fighting over different properties. I remember when I was in the City Council we were trying to revive the waterfront and from all around the world literally people were saying why don’t you just reopen Lundy’s. And I remember when we were in discussions about how to get someone to come in, we had a lot of property speculators who came in and said we’ll come in but if the building is going to be landmarked we’re not going to touch it, and we want no part of it. But as it turned out in retrospect, the fact that Lundy’s was preserved and the Spanish colonial architecture and the stain glass and everything, turned out to be the very thing that inspired more people to invest in Emmons Avenue. That inspired more people to want to come visit, that inspired people when they came back to New York to go back to their childhood experiences in Lundy’s, which by the way isn’t as good as it was.
It also wouldn’t hurt to have the mayor every once in a while not celebrating some glitzy glass stadium, but celebrating some corner of the city that reflects the true community. For example, you know I drive by the far West Side and I see that giant glass thing they are building there and I’m sure someone thinks it’s very attractive, and Sean Penn will be very happy living there I’m sure, but you know the real Greenwich Village is not that. The real Greenwich Village is a completely different thing.
And part of what I think we need to do from the highest levels of government is start to talk about preserving the city, not just as a political imperative to assuage Staten Island, not just as something we do in the context of the budget, but to start talking about these hearings and discussions and have the mayor, say “This is the 215th anniversary of this building, and here is a little about the history of this and come visit New York and take a look at this.”
I think it would go a long way to kind of restore where we are as a city that thinks about these things. And it also confirms for me one other thing that I don’t point out much about Mike Bloomberg, but I believe it makes a difference whether you’re from New York.
I don’t think he understands that being in New York means celebrating the communities, preserving the communities, seeing the old New York as a gateway to the new New York, and kind of seeing the connection. You know when I look at the, we have one picture of my great grandfather Wolf Weiner (you thought Anthony Weiner was a funny name) standing in front of this fur shop where he was a cutter. He was the first generation that was here, my great grandfather, and while it’s fascinating looking at my great grandfather and my great grandmother, Anna, in that picture, what’s also fascinating is to see the building of the Lower East Side and the tenements in the background.
God willing, someday I’m going to be able to bring my grandkids to that street, hold the picture, look at the building and say this is the connection that New York has and what makes it great. Anthony Weiner is going to remember that when he is mayor. And it’s more than just a government. It’s more than just a budget. It’s more than just a hearing. It’s a sense deep in us that this is an important of part of New York going forward. And that is something I’m not going to forget.
WILL YOU KEEP YOUR PROMISES?
Q: The annual budget for the New York City Landmarks Commission is $3 million. When he was here as a candidate, Michael Bloomberg said that that was ridiculous, that it was ridiculous that there was only one inspector in the landmarks commission for all of the two and a half percent of the city’s real estate that is landmarked. And he committed himself to do something about it.
Weiner: Look, I am committed to an increase in the budget. I’m not going to say significant, I’m not going to say a lot, I’m not going to say a doubling, but I am committed to the idea of reviewing the suggestion that my former constituent made about having a certain stop gap requirement that inspections happen of certain types of buildings, which I believe that if I drop you a letter and say I support that will require an increase in the budget of the agency, just to be able to fulfill that.
2 COLUMBUS CIRCLE
Q: When my committee approached you for a letter on 2 Columbus Circle to the Landmarks Preservation Committee, you wrote a beautiful letter.
Weiner: In fairness it wasn’t actually an “approach.” it was more like a bludgeoning.
Q: Have you given any thought to Governors Island?
Weiner: We put together a little committee. Perhaps we can ask a member of your group to be on the committee. We’re giving some thought to it now, we wanted to give a speech on it and come up with a proposal two months ago, and like everything else with Governors Island the more we peel the onion, the more complex the discussion got.
One thing I say is this, it’s another example, and I can think of three or four right of the top of my head, that if we devoted a fraction of the thought, of the energy, of the money, of the resources, to Governors Island, to developing the area around DUMBO, the waterfront in Brooklyn, that we did to the Olympics, we would be so much better off.
The answer is I’ve given the some thought to it, but I’m reluctant now kind of in the middle of the process to say what I would propose. I’m open to ideas.
Not only have there been a lot of thoughtful studies on Governors Island, but there’s a memorandum of understanding that was signed by all the principle parties, including the city. Right now Daniel Doctoroff seems to be intent on reopening that, which does not give us much comfort.
Other Candidates Speeches
â€˘ Fernando Ferrer: The Irreplaceable Treasures of the Bronx
â€˘ C. Virginia Fields:Looking Beyond the Big Ticket Items
â€˘ Gifford Miller: Updating the Landmarks Law