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  GOTHAM GAZETTE: SEARCHLIGHT 2002: Manhattan Borough President


By C. Virginia Fields

In 1997, when I was first elected borough president of the most exciting county in the most exciting city in the world, I realized that I would face many formidable tasks in my efforts to create "One Manhattan For All." It would be extremely difficult to pinpoint which of these challenges deserve the most attention. But there are four areas where we should concentrate our efforts. By addressing these issues, we will have a positive effect on other key concerns such as economic development and job creation.

Seventeen years ago, Mayor Ed Koch issued a Christmas Eve challenge to New York City's real estate development community: Tell me, he said, how city government can lower the costs of building affordable middle-income housing. Developers responded with a wish list of reforms, a number of which were enacted, and private production picked up. At the same time, the city launched a 10-year, $5 billion capital plan to build or renovate more than 250,000 units of housing.

That was the last time that New York City had an affordable housing strategy. A similar mix of private initiative, public investment and policy reform, modified and updated, can work again.

Two years ago, my Affordable Housing Task Force, made up of developers of private and non-profit housing, policy experts and others, released its recommendations to jump-start production of affordable housing in New York. Its report, A Time to Build, outlined ways to lower costs for developers and also increase investment in public and private housing.

The members of the task force proposed that we start treating vacant city-owned land as the valuable resource that it is. Rather than just auctioning it off willy-nilly, the city should assemble small parcels of land into economically viable development sites. The city also should offer tax breaks for affordable housing development to private holders of vacant land. The zoning and building codes need to be made more friendly to development, and the state should clean up industrial "brownfields" for reuse as housing sites.

Obviously, several of the report's recommendations need to be reconsidered in light of the events of September 11th. Some, however, notably the establishment of a Housing Trust Fund, are still feasible and deserve further study.

The law of supply and demand accounts for New York's affordable housing crisis. Over the last 20 years, New York City's population has increased by 350,000 people, but we have added only 42,000 rental apartments. That has pushed the cost of housing into the stratosphere, forced middle class families out of the city and discouraged businesses from expanding or locating in New York. It is time to reverse that trend. I believe everyone will agree that if we can build homes for minor league baseball teams and consider building new stadiums for their major league counterparts, then we can certainly build homes for middle-class New Yorkers.

Another area where we need to concentrate our efforts is in transportation. The cornerstone of my transportation policy has been the development of a full-length Second Avenue Subway. Recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority finalized a contract for $200 million for the design phase of this project, and $1 billion has been earmarked for it in the authority's 2000-2004 Capital Plan.

When the idea of building the subway was first revived (it has been around for at least 80 years) it was only going to run from 63rd Street to 125th Street. We convened a Second Avenue Subway Task Force, comprising elected officials, community and business groups, and interested citizens. In response to a campaign that included 17,000 postcards, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to plan for a full-length subway from 125th Street to the Financial District .

The Lexington Avenue line is now over capacity. The East Side Access project, which will bring 40,000 additional commuters from Long Island to Grand Central Terminal, will add even more commuters to the East Side, making it essential that the there be an additional East Side line. Connections with subways serving Brooklyn and Queens will also relieve congestion. A full-length Second Avenue Subway will help bring the East Side into parity with the West Side, which is served by four subway lines. And it could aid job growth since more workers will have easier access to points up and down Manhattan.

We must examine every alternative mode of transportation that will encourage people to leave their cars at home and use public transportation to get into and around our borough and city. Ferries had been seeing a resurgence. Since September 11th, when they played an integral part in the evacuation of lower Manhattan, they have helped replace some of the capacity lost because of damage to the PATH. They can provide service between terminals in Manhattan, as well as across the river.

A third area of concern is the overall quality of Manhattan's public schools and what can be done to improve them. We must work to promote more partnerships between schools and private corporations. Corporate sponsors for Manhattan's public schools would provide much-needed resources for after-school programs, computers, and other important programs.

I was extremely pleased that three of Manhattan's public schools were recently removed from the list of School Under Registration Review (SURR), the state's list of failing schools. It appears that the hard work, the extra $2,000 per child, the extended day, and the 15 percent extra money for teachers paid off. This is a serious commitment we need to make to all of these poorly performing schools.

The issue of school safety came to the fore again after the shootings at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School earlier this month. It would be sensible to seize upon this incident as an opportunity to put into place long-term security measures not just at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, but at all schools throughout New York City.

Finally, the greatest challenge currently facing this borough and this city is the massive task of rebuilding downtown Manhattan. While we make plans to rebuild this devastated area, there is one consideration we cannot overlook: Ground Zero, for all who lost loved ones, family and friends, will forever be hallowed ground. Therefore, our planning must begin with an appropriate and reverent memorial.

As the planning for a "new" downtown takes shape, my office will ensure that local voices, especially those of residents and owners and employees of small businesses, be heard. Ideally, our plans should meet the need for housing, schools, parks and public buildings that will make this area once again an attractive and exciting mixed-use neighborhood. I am extremely heartened by the support Mayor Bloomberg and John Whitehead, chair of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, have expressed for these elements. Nevertheless, I will work to ensure that other projects, such as the development of the West Side Rail Yards and the construction of a full-length Second Avenue Subway, do not fall by the wayside while the focus is on rebuilding lower Manhattan.

C. Virginia Fields is Manhattan borough president.

January 28, 2002

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It Covers the Waterfront By Alex Halperin

Manhattan has the smallest waterfront of any New York City borough, but it looms largest in the public imagination. Due to poor planning, however, it has not played a major role in New Yorkers' daily lives. This is starting to change. A plan covering the entire 32-mile waterfront aims to make this resource more accessible and pedestrian friendly.

The plan was conceived by then Borough President Ruth Messenger, whose office submitted it to the City Planning Commission in 1995. City Planning, which has long supported similar goals, modified and approved the proposal in 1997. The city charter revision that calls for community plans stipulates that such plans may come from a borough president's office as well as from a community board. This is the only approved 197-a plan that did.

According to Dan Willson, a spokesman for the borough president's office, Messinger and her staff decided to take this approach because the plan would incorporate the ideas of many community boards. "The thinking was there's strength in numbers," Willson said.

Steady progress has been made in implementing the proposals. Bill Woods, who is in charge of waterfront issues for the City Planning Department, said the plan has made an enormous difference. For example, he said, the area between Wall Street and East River Park and Stuyvesant Cove have been restored. On the West Side, the waterfront has been cleaned and facilities for walkers and bicyclists have made the water a larger part of Manhattan life.

Peter Fleischer, Gotham Gazette's waterfront columnist, said the plan should be read as a "complex vision statement," consisting of many small projects, rather than a grand scheme to be implemented all at once. According to Fleischer, the city has had great success with such small projects that "get people more connected with the waterways that made this city possible." The improvements, he says, have helped people "put their feet in the water" by fishing, boating and swimming -- activities not necessarily associated with the Manhattan waterfront.

This focus on small development keeps the Manhattan waterfront plan very much in the spirit of community planning. It addresses quality of life improvements, not major additions. For example, the proposed Guggenheim Museum that would jut out from Wall Street into New York Harbor is not in the plan because it is not intended to unite the community with the water.

In fact, the plan has been notably less successful at realizing the larger projects it does address. The foot and bicycle path around Manhattan's perimeter is at least a few years off, although it received a boost when Mayor Michael Bloomberg advocated it in his State of the City address.

Similarly the creation of parks and improvement of public spaces has not proceeded as quickly in the borough's more depressed areas as in more affluent areas. But plans for a renovated Harlem Beach, stretching along the Harlem River between 125th and 145th Streets, are in progress now that the city has managed to secure state and federal funding for it.

Like everything in Manhattan, plans for the waterfront were severely affected by September 11. Battery Park, which has undergone some of the most sweeping renovations, has become a less desirable destination for those seeking a renewed relationship with Manhattan's waterfront.

Pier 26 in Tribeca was transformed from an industrial storage facility to a community boathouse after Governor George Pataki signed the Hudson River Park Act in 1998. But after September 11, Pier 26 became one of the major departure points for barges shipping debris from Ground Zero. Though Woods is optimistic that the recreation facilities in Tribeca will soon be operating, other planned projects will likely be postponed as the city focuses on recovery.

Want more info on the 2001 Campaign for Manhattan Borough President? Click here to go to our Searchlight on Campaign 2001 page.