Gotham Gazette

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Drumming Up Support in the Heights

Photo (cc) Susan NYC
Fruit stand on 181st Street in Washington Heights

If you want to get elected in Washington Heights, start by getting a car.

Paste posters of your face all over it. Blasting merengue from a large roof-mounted megaphone can't hurt either. Then hit the streets. Knock on doors. Shake hands.

These are just some of the tactics employed by the eight candidates vying to represent the City Council's 10th district -- which stretches from Manhattan's Washington Heights to the Bronx's Marble Hill. All Democrats, the winner of the Sept. 15 primary election will face minimal opposition from a third party candidate, Judith Amaro, in the general election this fall.

Because of the resignation last month of Councilmember Miguel Martinez, the first casualty of the City Council's slush fund scandal, and the subsequent disqualification of the former councilmember who was trying to take his place on the ballot, Guillermo Linares, the race for district 10 provides a rare opportunity in New York City politics: It's an in for a political newcomer.

Those novices include first-time candidates and perennial petitioners. Three are teachers, three are city employees, one touts his experience as an architect, another extols his reputation as an attorney.

An Outsider Turned Inside Out

Ydanis Rodriguez

If anyone had an incumbent's advantage it would be Ydanis Rodriguez. With the most nods from the city's political elite, including Upper Manhattan's Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat and the Working Families Party, Rodriguez is eyed by most of his opponents as the man to beat.

Rodriguez's campaign coffers are the largest: with $72,104 in private contributions $84,122 in public funds.

A social studies teacher and community activist, Rodriguez, who ran for the seat in 2001, has already adopted a popular New York political mantra: boost affordable housing and early childhood education.

"We have to defend affordable housing and defend tenants harassed by landlords," said Rodriguez just outside of the Dyckman Express Restaurant in Inwood moments before meeting a local housing organizer (Four passersby walked up during our interview to shake his hand.) "The budget is $60 billion. The question is where we set our priorities."

The lanky, towering candidate has set his: getting a tenants association in every development, bringing a public health clinic to the district and unifying the long-fragmented community.

Manny Velazquez

Those goals, while not identical, are similar to one of Rodriguez's competitors: Manny Velazquez, a teacher and dean of students and chair of Community Board 12. Comparing his run against party-backed Rodriguez to David and Goliath, Velazquez says he wants to create a "bona-fide community center" in the district to offer services spanning youth to seniors.

"I'm not supported by the political machinery," said Velazquez, dressed in a dark suit and crisp white dress shirt, perched in a Dyckman Street grill's backlit booth. "I am supported by the community."

Also on this 32-year district resident's to-do list: requiring the City Council appoint the members of the Rent Guidelines Board instead of the mayor. He would have to go to Albany to enact such a proposal.

With a district where only 4 percent of residents own their homes, , Velazquez, who has raised $21,805 for his bid, said he wants to give incentives to developers to build affordable units in Upper Manhattan. "Once you own a home, you value your community," he said.

On the Fringe

Ruben Dario Vargas

Even though Velazquez casts himself as a political outsider, other candidates take that approach a step further, none more so than Ruben Dario Vargas -- an employee of the New York City Police Department, who refused to specify his position. (He also refused to tell Gotham Gazette his age.)

Standing in front of the city's Board of Elections on Tuesday, Vargas was ready to make a last-ditch attempt to knock his biggest rival off the ballot. After taking off his signature wide-brimmed black hat, Vargas stood at one of two podiums at the center of the room, charging that Rodriguez was not a registered Democrat.

Just two minutes later, the case was dismissed. Vargas said he lost his argument because Rodriguez is now a member of the political establishment and therefore can't get thrown off the ballot.

According to the city Board of Elections, Rodriguez has been a registered Democrat since at least 2000.

Vargas, who came to New York from the Dominican Republic 24 years ago and would later serve in the Air Force and the Navy, ran against Rep. Charles Rangel in 1996, and for City Council in 2001 and 2005.

Even though his dealings at the Board of Elections minutes beforehand might indicate the contrary, Vargas said he keeps running for office to ensure there is a democratic process in district 10.

"When elected officials are not opposed, they will take the people for granted," said Vargas. "I want goodness, fairness, wellness."

He has raised $12,190 and received $52,810 in public funding.

Vargas, who does not live in the district but has promised to move there by Election Day, says if he is elected he wants to require all schools have uniforms -- a policy he says would prevent students from discriminating against one another and doing drugs. He wants to make sure two of the district's subway stations, one on Broadway the other on Dyckman, get elevators, and he will work to stop excessive ticketing on area businesses.

Businesses have also made it onto the agenda of other district 10 candidates, including architect Luis Facundo.

Luis Facundo

"We should have banks. We should have hotels. We should have residential buildings," said Facundo, who is the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce for Inwood and Marble Hill and a salt-and-pepper haired native Dominican. One of Facundo's first priorities is to bring the real estate industry up to Upper Manhattan. He said, if elected, he would sit down and talk to developers and mandate a new formula for affordable housing: 15 percent of a development would be for low-income, 15 percent would be set aside for the "working class" and the rest would be set by the market.

Facundo, who refuses to participate in the city's public financing system but has raised $16,062 for his campaign, also wants to open the district's schools at night to get kids off of the street.

Other than that, he said, he's running a low-key campaign. "Elect Facundo, because he has the loudest merengue," he said in his campaign office, then laughed.

Rounding Out the Pack

Though some of these candidates have run for office multiple times before, others are taking their first stab at it.

Cleofis Sarete

Cleofis Sarete is one of them.

Dressed in a pink shirt that matched her lipstick, this English as a second language teacher sat in a local café and explained how she whetted her political appetite in college in student government. Since then, she has served as a local district leader and on an area precinct community council.

"As a parent, as a woman, as a community activist, I've been through the struggles that an ordinary citizen in this district has been through," said Sarete, who has raised $5,706 for her campaign.

She said she would "first and foremost" focus on education as a councilmember, including getting smaller class sizes.

Francesca Castellanos

The only other woman in the race is Francesca Castellanos, a Spanish language interpreter who works in senior and social services agencies. Castellanos, who has raised $6,872 and received $30,677 in public funding, ran against Martinez in 2001 and ran for the State Assembly in 2006.

Castellanos wants to focus on preserving affordable housing in the district by creating a city-based section 8 housing voucher program and by increasing rent subsidies for seniors.

"As a regular citizen, I have always worked for social service agencies," said Castellanos. "I have always helped seniors, tenants with their rents. I have been in the trenches with them."

Castellanos says she's running a grassroots campaign, which includes knocking on doors.

Richard Realmuto, the district's only non-Latino candidate, is taking his conservative Democratic philosophy to the road via U-Haul.

Richard Realmuto

"I have a truck, I'm hooking up a U-Haul to it, we’ve got some music and I'm going to tour Marble Hill, Inwood and Washington Heights day and night," said Realmuto, who has raised $5,665 for his bid. "I'm just going to walk around, shake hands, maybe bring some ice pops," Realmuto added, laughing.

Realmuto, an attorney, wants to make sure the city government can provide a safety net, but not "a blanket." He'll staff his council office with lawyers, and try to bring job opportunity to the district. He wants a Barnes and Noble, charter schools and economic competition, which, he said, the district doesn't have.

Francisco Spies

Francisco Spies, a caseworker at the Human Resources Administration who is using between $100 and $200 from every paycheck to finance his run, has already beaten Realmuto to the road. He is cruising the streets of District 10 in a large van, blaring a song with a "Francisco Spies" refrain.

Spies wants to limit how much money people can spend on campaigns, require commissioners at the Board of Elections be elected and create a vocational school to boost job opportunities for local residents.

"The democratic system needs a tune up," he said. "Regular people are not truly represented."

These candidates want to be the "regular person" who will do just that.

Stated Meeting: City Council Requires Pharmacies to Translate

Photo (cc) scalleja


Handing out its own prescription for language access, the City Council approved legislation Thursday requiring large pharmacy chains to providetranslation services in the city's most popular languages.

The bill, which was approved by a vote of 36 to 7, would apply to pharmacies with more than four locations that are under the same ownership. Opponents of the bill say it is another example of the city overregulating private businesses.

In addition, the council unanimously approved legislation requiring daily standpipe inspections at construction sites, a response to the Deutsche Bank fire two years ago.

Lost in Prescriptions

Aida Torres, a Spanish-speaking Brooklyn resident, said she "does not speak English well."

Standing outside of City Hall yesterday, Torres explained that what would be a routine trip to their local pharmacy for many is a dangerous venture for non-English speakers.

"I've experienced going into pharmacies in New York and not being able to understand my pharmacist," said Torres, who praised the legislation. "Medication can be very dangerous."

According to a 2006 survey by the New York Academy of Medicine, 88 percent of randomly selected pharmacists served people who spoke only limited English every day, but 50 percent did not translate labels or did so less than once a week.

About one in four New Yorkers do not speak English.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who introduced the legislation, said, "It is a very important bill for a city like this."

The legislation (Intro 859-A) requires pharmacies post signs letting customers know they offer translation services. They would also have to provide oral and written translation services for medication labels, guidance on how to take the prescription and information on warnings. These translations could be done over the phone, in person or by a third-party contractor. The languages included are Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Russian, Korean, Italian, French Creole and Polish. If a pharmacy does not comply with the law, it could face a fine of up to 2,500 and $5,000 for subsequent violations.

Though the bill would only apply to large chain stores, those in the pharmacy industry fear that this is just a first step towards forcing local mom and pop shops to provide these services. When first proposed, the bill did require all pharmacies provide translation services by 2012. It was later scaled back.

"We are just afraid or maybe concerned that we eventually will be affected," said Alex Perchuk, owner of Thriftway Pharmacy in Midwood and vice president of the New York City Pharmacists Society. "We already provide label information in different languages."

Some council members agreed.

"I see government talking out both sides of our mouths," said Minority Leader Jimmy Oddo, who just attended a meeting on how to help small businesses through the recession. "Do we honestly believe this is the end point?"

In addition to Oddo, Councilmembers Elizabeth Crowley, Simcha Felder, Peter Vallone and Daniel Garodnick as well as the body's other Republican members, Eric Ulrich and Vincent Ignizio, voted against the bill.

According to the mayor's Press Secretary Stu Loeser, the mayor is expected to sign the legislation.

Construction Site Safety

Standing in the City Council's Red Room, Joseph Graffagnino Sr., the father of one of two firefighters who died during the Deutsche Bank blaze in 2007, said his son, who shares his name, would have been 36 years old Thursday.

Graffagnino's son never saw that age. While the Deutsche Bank was being deconstructed its standpipe was severed -- effectively cutting off all of the water supply to the firefighters, like Graffagnino, who were trying to fight the blaze.

The City Council is trying to make sure that doesn't happen again.

As part of legislative package in response to the fire, the council approved four bills that regulate the inspection of standpipes at construction sites and the deconstruction of buildings. The first (Intro 993 ) would require a design professional submit a demolition plan that would need to be approved by the Department of Buildings before any deconstruction could occur.

The council also approved legislation (Intro 994) that requires standpipes and sprinklers to be painted red for easy identification and a bill (Intro 999) that requires site safety managers check standpipe connections daily.

The final bill (Intro 1000) allows only a licensed master plumber or fire suppression professional to cut and cap a standpipe system. They would also need to have a permit from the Department of Buildings.

"We can help prevent the loss of critical minutes and also prevent the loss of firefighters' lives," said Garodnick, a prime sponsor of the package.

Stated Meeting: Coney Island Gets a Facelift


In an attempt to revitalize an area long known as "America's playground," the City Council approved a 27-acre redevelopment planto turn Coney Island into a year-round destination, full of retail, hotels and entertainment.

Call it Las Vegas a la Brooklyn.

With both indoor and outdoor amusements, the controversial redevelopment, which was approved by a vote of 44 to 2 with one abstention, is intended to bring back the Coney Island circa 1930s when the area was flooded with vacationers and New Yorkers looking for sun and sand.

Council members Tony Avella and Charles Barron voted against the plan, saying it would take away Coney Island's character and the city did not factor in enough of the community's concerns. Rosie Mendez abstained.

In addition to the Coney Island redevelopment plan, the City Council also approved several bills to improve bike access in the city, including requiring bike parking in certain parking garages.

Coney Island Redevelopment

Morphing mostly vacant lots into parkland, the plan could include as many as four high-rise hotels along Surf Avenue and at least 10 acres dedicated solely for amusement. The amusement area will be a mix of indoor and outdoor entertainment, anything from arcades and freak shows to art galleries and restaurants.

Though the council has approved the plan, the deal is not entirely etched in stone yet. Much of the success of Coney Island depends on a potential deal with a local developer, Joseph J. Sitt, chief executive officer of Thor Equities. Thor owns several acres eyed by the city for the entertainment and amusement district. For months, the Bloomberg administration and the developer have been negotiating the price of the property, and at one point were considering a land swap.

Yesterday city officials appeared very close to an agreement with Sitt, which could allow the city to purchase six of Sitt's 10 acres.

In a statement yesterday, Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Thor Equities, said: "Thor is continuing to work with the administration to ensure the best outcome for Coney Island. We are hopeful that these negotiations will result in a timely resolution and a brighter day for Coney."

Sitt had been involved in the redevelopment of Coney Island back in 2002, when the local councilmember, Domenic Recchia, asked for his help in revitalizing the all too often vacant amusement area.

Recchia, an ally of Sitt, had held up his own support of the project in part because the administration and the developer could not come to an agreement.

In response to the City Council's approval, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a prepared statement: "We’ve still got a lot of work to do in the days ahead. We have every reason to feel optimistic because we’re working aggressively to iron out the terms of deals with landowners. And we will also continue working with our partners in Albany to gain approval for the parkland legislation we need for the development to move forward."

Yesterday, Recchia spoke confidently of the plan, saying a new school, community center, and job creation programs will all create a better Coney Island.

"Not everyone got what they wanted. We tried to make as many people as happy as we can," said Recchia. Eventually, he later added, "we will see the world's greatest playground come back better than ever."

It is true that not everyone is happy. Community advocates from the get-go voiced concern over the amount of space dedicated to outdoor amusement. Pointing to the smaller rides that had taken up much of the space of Coney Island in recent decades, opponents of the plan, like the Save Coney Island coalition, were dismayed that it did not include more outdoor amusements, similar to the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel -- both of which are included in the redevelopment.

At yesterday's council meeting, the balcony was full of protestors who held white signs saying, "Don't Save Coney Island. Fix the Plan."

Following the vote, Steve Peluso of Save Coney Island, wrote in an e-mail: "These flaws in the plan are obviously concessions to property owner Joe Sitt, CEO of Thor Equities, who invaded Coney Island under the pretense of building a new amusement park there, but instead transformed a large majority of the area into a blighted empty lot in hopes of bullying the city into buying him out or up-zoning his land. The City Council today played right into his hands."

Some council members agreed with them.

When voting against the plan yesterday, Barron said, "There are some people in Coney Island who are not settling. I've talked to grassroots groups who feel like Coney Island will be Cozy Island for the elite."

Currently, according to the Department of City Planning, out of 50,000 residents of the area about one in six live in New York City Housing Authority projects. At least 25 percent of the population is over 60 years old, and unemployment is twice the city's average.

The plan, according to city officials, will help turn those statistics around.

According to city officials, the amusement area will be surrounded by about 4,500 new residences, which at least 35 percent are slated for affordable housing. The original Coney Island proposal by the Bloomberg administration included only 20 percent affordable housing. About half of the affordable housing will have a home ownership option, said Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The city will set aside about $15 million for boardwalk reconstruction and $137 million to improve sewage and stormwater infrastructure in the area.

Bike Parking and Access

Also yesterday, the council approved two bills to spur more New Yorkers to commute via bicycle. The first bill (Intro 871) will require commercial buildings with freight elevators to allow employees to take their bicycles into work. The bill, said Quinn, will affect 1,600 commercial buildings, a little less than a quarter of all of the city's commercial buildings.

The second bill (Intro 780) will require parking garages with more than 100 parking spots provide parking spaces for bicycles. A bike spot would be mandated for every 10 vehicle parking spots, up to 200 spots.

Both bills were approved by a vote of 46 to 1, with Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan dissenting.

For the first two years, the bike parking bill will capture 650 garages and create 1,000 bike spaces, city officials said. After two years the bill will apply to garages of 51 or more spaces.

From Smoking to Pedicabs

Also on Wednesday, the council approved a bill (Intro 642) that will ban smoking on the grounds or within 15 feet of an entrance to a hospital, diagnostic treatment center or residential health care facility.

The council unanimously approved a bill (Intro 1031) that would regulate pedicabs, requiring every operator obtain a license and train its drivers.

Also unanimously, the council approved a veto override (Intro 992), which will allow every city employee to live in six surrounding counties after completing two years of employment. Currently, most employees must reside within the five boroughs permanently.

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