Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/165 Thu, 24 Oct 2019 04:47:37 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Why I’m Voting Yes to Close Rikers and Build Humane New Jails https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8854-why-i-m-voting-yes-to-close-rikers-and-build-humane-new-jails https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8854-why-i-m-voting-yes-to-close-rikers-and-build-humane-new-jails costas consta attends

Council Member Costa Constantinides, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


Nothing in New York City’s or our country’s history says we’re good at running jails. 

For hundreds of years, we have cast detainees away to far-flung islands. Out of sight, out of mind. Mostly black and brown men. Overwhelmingly, without having even been convicted of a crime. 

So, the recent skepticism to build a jail in the heart of my beloved Queens is justifiable. After countless meetings with criminal justice advocates, many among them previously jailed in Rikers Island’s houses of horrors, it’s clear the borough-based plan now before the City Council is the best option New York has.

A decision like this isn’t arrived at easily. I am ultimately voting “yes” this week because the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good while thousands of people are stripped of their human rights, confined in decrepit, asbestos-riddled jails far from their attorneys, families, and communities. 

The alternative would be to walk away now with no plan to close the Rikers Island jails. 

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to shut down the jails for good, in as little as five years, would vanish. The rare consensus among academics, the legal community, and victims of this broken system, which ensures people paying their debt to society are rehabilitated and prepared to re-enter civil society, will have been in vain. As a legislator, as a New Yorker, and as a human being, I cannot let this happen. The Lippman Commission rightly called the 80-plus years of jailing people on Rikers a stain on our city’s history. 

The stories from Rikers remind us why the jails there must close and why we must do better in the future. Sadly, it took Kalief Browder’s suicide after three maddening years in solitary confinement, a punishment that was hideously disproportional to the crime for which he was accused, for many of us to listen. 

Now, we’ve heard from Vidal Guzman, who recently pointed out that “Just because someone has left Rikers, doesn’t mean that Rikers has left them.” Kandra Clark, who spent four months in the infamous women’s facility, has spoken about the emotional torture of “the male correctional officers who would watch me go to the bathroom through the window in my cell door each night.” Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services, recently went public about the toxic culture within the jails as well as what this physical and mental abuse looked like up close.

A “no” vote punts this to the next City Council, guaranteeing this inhumane status quo lives on for the time being. Instead, the City Council vote on Thursday can pave the way for more humane facilities. Is incarcerating any person the ideal? No. But, as former detainee Marco Barrios said earlier this year, the borough-based facilities “will not fix all the problems by themselves, but they can provide important progress.” 

This week, the Council will vote to build smaller, safer detention centers for violent-crime suspects and anyone else who spends any time in jail in New York City; to make it easier for the loved ones and attorneys of all those detained to visit them; and to create a system focused on rehabilitation of those swept up in the system.

New York City will invest in programs within the detention centers to break people free from this vicious cycle. And, our state government in Albany has been chipping away at the system that essentially makes being too poor to afford bail a crime. Previous reforms have already put us on a strong pace to shrink the city’s jail population from the current 7,000 to the necessary 4,000 that guarantees the permanent closure of the Rikers jails. 

Life is full of grey areas. The harsh reality is that some people commit heinous crimes and must be kept from the public. We, as a society, owe that to every child who’s had to hide under a bed, taking low, quiet breaths while an abusive parent bangs on the locked apartment door. Rape victims deserve to walk the streets without fear their attacker is out in public. 

But no longer will New York City’s jails function like a factory that takes in teenagers on a marijuana possession charge and pumps out hardened repeat offenders.

The rest is on us as policy-makers. I believe the city should invest in elements of the #CloseRikers coalition’s #BuildCommunities platform. This money must go into black and brown neighborhoods that traditionally have seen few city investments beyond more police cruisers.

The coalition has common sense asks: supportive housing, job training, access to physical and mental healthcare, educational investment, partnerships with community groups, as well as neighborhood conflict de-escalation and alternatives to incarceration. These investments should not be a one-shot either, and I will continue to fight for these things well beyond my tenure in the City Council.  

Community leaders, criminal justice advocates, and former Rikers detainees believe the plan the Council votes on this week will work. I trust them. And I trust my colleagues in the City Council and elsewhere in city government to follow through on the promises we’re making. I will be among those making sure that we do.

Tomorrow, the next day, and every day after this vote we have to break the stigmas around the formerly incarcerated. Remember the Bryan Stevenson mantra: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” The City of New York must apply this same logic to itself. The mistakes of our predecessors shouldn’t prevent us from making the right decision for the future. 

Rikers Island can be part of that future if the city uses the vacated land to get dirty infrastructure out of the same communities broken apart by the criminal justice system. These are the power plants, sewage facilities, and garbage stations that give people asthma, make them miss school, and saw their opportunity ladder in half. Voting to close Rikers today means we can give our kids a healthier tomorrow. 

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City Council Member Costa Constantinides represents District 22, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, including Rikers Island. He is the chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection. On Twitter @Costa4NY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Why I’m Voting Yes to Close Rikers and Build Humane New Jails Tue, 15 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8780-7-years-after-sandy-city-resiliency-efforts-since https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8780-7-years-after-sandy-city-resiliency-efforts-since coneyisland wetlands rendering

Rendering of Coney Island wetlands project (photo: mayor's office, Oct. 2013)


This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy killed 43 people and caused nearly $20 billion in damages and lost productivity in New York City. While the city has not seen a storm of that scale in the nearly seven years since, climate change, sea level rise, and the dangers posed by major weather events have continued to accelerate. In the aftermath of Sandy, the city began to implement a number of programs to make the city more resilient, or prepared for another Sandy-caliber disaster.

But elected officials, advocacy groups, and other experts say a Sandy-caliber storm would be nearly if not just as devastating today as it was in 2012. The city and its partners at other levels of government have been far too slow to act, and have not moved with requisite boldness in considering how to truly prepare the five boroughs, with their 520 miles of coastline, for the present and the future, they say. Projects are behind schedule or on too-long timelines, federal money isn’t being spent quickly enough by the city, there’s no real plan guiding it all.

In other words, New York City is nowhere near as resilient as it needs to be, and it’s not clear when the city might meet even a low bar for preparedness.

As the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s landfall in New York City nears, another round of evaluations, oversight hearings, and other discussions is kicking off. To many, what’s been accomplished in terms of resiliency efforts is astonishingly limited given that it’s been seven years and the lessons that were supposed to have been learned in the storm’s aftermath. Some are calling on the city to drastically speed up its implementation of resiliency projects to protect the city’s residents and their property, while a new proposal would mandate the city produce a five-borough resiliency plan.

Beyond the emergency response, the biggest questions from seven years ago remain the same today: what is actually being done to prepare New York City for the next big storm and the climate future, and what else should be done as quickly as possible?

Where Things Stand
In June 2013, the year after the storm hit, the city introduced the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), a $19.5 billion program to reinforce disaster protocols and prevent damage from future climate events. The initiative sought to “ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change,” according to Jainey Bavishi, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January 2014.

The city is especially concerned with climate change, including sea-level rise, hurricanes, extreme precipitation, heat waves, and rising temperatures, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

“Global warming is an emergency, and adapting quickly is an existential necessity,” Bavishi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re investing $20 billion across all five boroughs to help ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change.”

Many of the city’s goals are included in the OneNYC plan, a comprehensive compilation of initiatives that include strategies to improve resiliency and address climate change. By the 2050s, OneNYC estimates that the nearly 1 million residents who will live in the expanded coastal floodplain will be particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, with sea levels expected to rise by up to 30 inches, not including the effects of major weather events. High tides will cause flooding twice a day in some areas, and permanent inundation in others, according to those projections.

Despite agreement on the urgency of the threat, the city has not executed as much as talked about its plans for resiliency, said Eric Goldstein, New York Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The SIRR, first released post-Sandy by the Bloomberg administration in its final year, and subsequently backed by the de Blasio administration, includes more than 250 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. Its focus is five especially vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the east and south shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

A good deal of work is in motion, with dozens of projects completed and others moving ahead, but at an overall pace that is surprisingly slow to many. The city has spent less than 54 percent of the $15 billion that has been funded from the city’s $20 billion SIRR, according to a May report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today, all roads lead to New York being completely shut down,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the new Council Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, at City & State NY’s “Protecting New York Summit” on July 31. “My fear is that if Sandy were to happen tomorrow we’d see the same effect we saw almost seven years ago. That’s what a lot of my constituents feel as well.”

Brannan has been surveying coastal areas of the city, including those in his southern Brooklyn district, and plans to hold multiple oversight hearings this fall, he told the Max & Murphy podcast earlier in July. Brannan also discussed the fact that he and City Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, recently introduced a bill to mandate the mayoral administration create a five-borough resiliency plan, with certain specific guidelines.

“You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape,” Brannan and Constantinids wrote in a recent joint op-ed discussing their bill and plans to assess post-Sandy efforts. “The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years.”

The city’s current efforts to become more resilient -- often called too piecemeal by Brannan, Constantinides, and others -- can be broken down into improved infrastructure, coastal defenses, and community preparedness.

On the coasts, the city has reconstructed boardwalks, built dunes across beaches on Staten Island and the Rockaways, and coordinated to place 4.2 million cubic yards of new sand on city beaches, according to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. The city has intermittently installed flood protection measures at 40 sites, including those most impacted by Sandy, according to the spokesperson. However, these efforts are largely temporary -- they are designed to mitigate flooding until permanent measures are designed and implemented.

In lower Manhattan, the city has advanced the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, an approximately $500 million investment in flood-risk-reduction projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood, The Battery, and Battery Park City. The plan is expected to cover 70 percent of the lower Manhattan shoreline, according to the city’s OneNYC Plan.

For the remaining 30 percent of lower Manhattan’s shoreline, which includes the seaport and the financial district, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency told Gotham Gazette that a two-year master planning process is expected to be completed in 2021.

In terms of creating more resilient infrastructure, the city has focused efforts on upgrading building and zoning codes and investing $1 billion to improve the steam, electric, and natural gas distribution infrastructure of Con Edison facilities. In the aftermath of Sandy, Con Ed agreed to compile a report assessing the effect of the city’s changing climate on its electrical grid. The first chapter of the report (on heat and humidity) was due in 2014. Five years later, the chapter has not yet been delivered, with a new deadline set for the end of this year. And at a hearing last week discussing Con Ed’s response to summer electrical blackouts, Speaker of the City Council called Con Ed’s public response “inadequate and laughable.”

The city has also been working with federal partners, specifically emergency management (FEMA), to create a future flood risk map that can be to be incorporated into building and zoning codes. 

The city has also discussed plans to extend the shoreline of the Financial District and South Street Seaport somewhere between 50 and 500 feet into the East River. Due to the current proximity of businesses to the shore, implementing land-based adaptation measures would be difficult, Bavishi said at the Protecting New York Summit, on a panel alongside Brannan.

“Any land-based protection feature would have to go deep into the neighborhood,” Bavishi said. Instead, the city is planning to build into the water. 

The city will not be able to complete all of its projects without funding and relies on the federal system to receive support for many of its projects, Bavishi said at the summit.

“Funding is a challenge. We have a federal system that funds these kinds of projects in a very reactive way when we inherently want to take proactive action to address these challenges we know are coming,” Bavishi said.

“Our actions will protect Lower Manhattan into the next century. We need the federal government to stand behind cities like New York to meet this crisis head on,” de Blasio said in a March press release.

However, as the city moves ahead with efforts to fortify parts of Manhattan, many have been critical of its work to prevent flooding in the other boroughs, arguing that their risk remains as high as when Sandy hit in 2012.

“My goal with the new [resiliency and waterfronts] committee is to work with the city to make sure folks in the outer boroughs see what the city is working on in their area,” Brannan said at the City & State event. “That the city is focused on them as well, not just lower Manhattan.”

“New Yorkers deserve a mapped-out resiliency plan that protects every community — instead of a single neighborhood,” Constantinides said in a June press release announcing the five-borough resiliency plan legislation he and Brannan were introducing and referencing what some see as the over-focus on lower Manhattan.

However, city administration officials maintain that they are working equally hard to bring resiliency to the other boroughs in addition to Manhattan. Officials point to efforts to bring dunes to the Rockaways and the importation of sand to the city’s beaches. But Brannan and others pan the sand measures as something that might have made sense in 2013 or 2014, but not seven years after Sandy, when stronger and more permanent resiliency measures should either be in place or close to it.

For many of its resiliency projects, the city is working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To date, the partnership has resulted in the construction of around five miles of new dunes across the Rockaway Peninsula.

What More Can Be Done
The city is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers on $1 billion worth of resiliency projects, including the beginning of the construction of the Staten Island Levee in 2020, a measure expected to mitigate flood risks along 5.3 miles of Staten Island’s east shore.

In Southeast Queens, the city and the Corps are working on a plan to create a tapered groin field and “reinforced dune on Rockaway Beach combined with a system of berms, floodwalls, and nature-based features to increase resiliency for bayside communities,” according to the OneNYC Plan. The city also says it will soon begin building the Red Hook Integrated Flood Protection System, which is expected to reduce flooding in the area by installing “tiger dams” along the shoreline -- a system of plastic balloons that inflate with water and fill up to create a flood barrier as water moves inland.

In their 2013 “Sandy Success Stories” report, the Environmental Defense Fund found that wetland restoration was key in preventing serious flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. It appeared to work well in Marine Park and Dreier Offerman Park in Brooklyn, for example. However, few if any of the city’s plans include wetland restoration, and the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency did not include it alongside a litany of other projects they would be undertaking.

Among the wetland restoration recommendations in the Sandy Success Stories study are systems to choose plans for their tolerance to flooding and salt inundation, in conjunction with a slope of 1:3. 

“A moderately steep slope seems to provide the most benefits in terms of supporting plant life and habitat, preventing erosion, attenuating wave action, and ensuring survival in the face of sea level rise. At the same time, this slope is shallow enough to minimize the reflection of wave energy that erodes the wetland area,” the recommendation reads.

Council Members Brannan and Constantinides are trying to look at both immediate needs and long-term planning.

“In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure,” the two Council members wrote in their recent op-ed. “Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.”

The two plan to hold a joint October City Council oversight hearing on issues faced by coastal areas of the city, post-Sandy recovery, resiliency measures, and the resiliency plan bill they are cosponsoring.

“That is a big part of this committee I’m chairing, the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, where we’re going to take a really close look into what has been done and what has not been done to help make the city of New York more resilient,” Brannan said on Max & Murphy. “When we’re dealing with this thing that is literally a race against the clock, we can’t tie our own hands and sort of hold ourselves hostage to this bureaucracy of how things were done in the past.”

In his May report, Comptroller Stringer called for the city to “develop a citywide comprehensive coastal resiliency plan” while also accelerating the pace of investments into resiliency projects, and expanding a homeowner buyout program in targeted vulnerable neighborhoods, among other measures to protect the city, especially its coastal communities, from the effects of major weather events and climate change.

The citywide plan, Stringer says, “should blend data about sea level rise and other vulnerabilities from the latest science, information about the state of good repair of waterfront assets, and a deep level of community engagement and dialogue” and should be developed by the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and other agencies, including the proposed Mayor’s Office of the Waterfront. In June of last year, Council Member Deborah Rose of Staten Island introduced a bill to create such an office, with Rose calling the waterfront “in many ways our sixth borough.”

That proposal could come up again as the Council examines post-Sandy efforts next month.

“[Constantinides] and I are looking at doing an oversight hearing in October,” Brannan said, “to really dig into the seventh anniversary of superstorm Sandy and where we’re at, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Getting New York City Ready for the Next Big Storm - & the Next Heat Wave, Flash Floods & Other Climate Emergencies https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8701-getting-new-york-city-ready-for-the-next-big-storm-the-next-heat-wave-flash-floods-other-climate-emergencies https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8701-getting-new-york-city-ready-for-the-next-big-storm-the-next-heat-wave-flash-floods-other-climate-emergencies cm carlos m cm dan gardonick marine

 (photo: William Alatriste New York City Council)


Billy Joel’s dystopian vision for New York City, laid out in the very upbeat but equally terrifying “Miami 2017,” is coming true. The lights have indeed gone out on Broadway. Perhaps the only difference is that Queens won’t stay. 

This is New York City in 2019: a near 100-degree heat wave shut down power for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, who then trudged through flooded streets once the high temperatures gave way to torrential rain. 

One thing became clear as climate change brought its greatest hits to the Big Apple: we are nowhere near ready for the next big storm. 

Considering we’re quickly approaching the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s decimation to Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, that’s downright shameful. The City of New York needs to move into high gear for both short- and long-term solutions that protect every single neighborhood from the effects of climate change, because this is a public safety crisis. 

Don’t believe it? Clearly you haven’t seen the footage of a straphanger at the Court Square station who was nearly swept onto the tracks by downpours. Twitter is filled with cellphone video of Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue flooded by water from the Gowanus Canal, which is a Superfund site. Or maybe you haven’t heard of instant New York legend Daphne Youree, who got out of her car near Exit 25 on the Long Island Expressway and used an orange traffic cone to clear a clogged drain to alleviate flash flooding. 

These sound like a new version of the stories our parents told of the bad old days in the 1970s, when the Fiscal Crisis turned New York City into a living performance of Mad Max. But, as skyscrapers for the ultra-rich keep cropping up along 57th Street, we can’t shrug at the fact that half of New York City’s 10 wettest years have come since 2003. 

If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today — though we hope it doesn’t — New York would be brought to a grinding halt based on what we’ve seen in the last week. Temperatures caused some 53,000 customers to lose power last weekend, as Con Ed pulled the plug on parts of Brooklyn and Queens, apparently so the grid wouldn’t be further strained. Even after the heat broke, on Tuesday, almost 3,000 customers were still without power and they were overwhelmingly in the outer boroughs.

Add a hurricane’s storm surge to the mix and our electrical grid would crumble. 

Con Edison has failed its duties as a public utility throughout the heatwave, which begs the question: how would they perform if a big storm hit tomorrow? The men and women who worked in the heat should be commended for getting power back up, but they shouldn’t also be responsible for communicating that to those suddenly cleaning out their refrigerators. That’s their bosses’ job — one they didn’t do well enough. All the while, they’re asking New Yorkers for a collective $695 million rate hike. 

Meanwhile, New York City’s streets are starting to look like Venice. You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape. The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years. 

In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure. Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.

But we also have to make sure our kids don’t have to deal with the mess we were too scared to clean up. Earlier this year we introduced a bill requiring New York City to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

Lower Manhattan is great, but asking Congress for $10 billion to protect a single business district when JFK Airport could be underwater by 2100 seems fiscally irresponsible. Failing to protect every neighborhood from Riverdale to Rockaway helps stave off tens of thousands of climate refugees the National Climate Assessment warned of when the seas come to claim our coasts.

We look forward to holding a hearing on this bill in October ahead of Sandy’s anniversary, so we can get to work on doing the long-term resiliency work. In the meantime, our city agencies need to mobilize, assess what’s causing rampant flooding throughout the city, and fix the problems immediately. Lastly, we need to make sure our threats against Con Edison have teeth and give the utility an ultimatum: give us the resilient, renewable grid we deserve or we’ll come for your power lines. 

The status quo is quickly sinking under the floodwaters, and New Yorkers are taking notice. Just like we’ve put our foot down to demand reliable service from the MTA, we need to take a stand on infrastructure. Because being late for work is one thing — being unprepared for a storm is fatal. 

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Costa Constantinides represents western Queens in the City Council and chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection; Justin Brannan represents southern Brooklyn in the City Council and chairs the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts. On Twitter @Costa4NY & @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Getting New York City Ready for the Next Big Storm - & the Next Heat Wave, Flash Floods & Other Climate Emergencies Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Calling for 'Climate Emergency' Declaration, Council Members Examine City's Progress in Renewable Energy https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8633-declaring-climate-emergency-council-examines-city-s-progress-in-renewable-energy https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8633-declaring-climate-emergency-council-examines-city-s-progress-in-renewable-energy declaring council examines

Climate emergency rally (photo: @BenKallos)


The likely future of devastation caused by climate change is one of several reasons activist Becca Trabin said New York City needs to declare a climate emergency.

“You look out at this beautiful cityscape. You don’t just see these tall buildings that are standing here today, you see what this space will look like if we continue on our current trajectory,” Trabin said. “I see devastation all around, I see death. And I see that there is still time to avert that trajectory.”

Trabin was surrounded by about 90 activists in front of City Hall on Monday – including City Council Members Ben Kallos, Costa Constantinides, and Rafael Espinal – who rallied ahead of a hearing of the Council’s Committee of Environmental Protection that included discussion of a resolution to declare a climate emergency in New York City.

The resolution, sponsored by Kallos, declares a climate emergency and calls for immediate emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate. It would not have the force of law, but would be a symbolic step toward pushing climate-change deniers to finally do what must be done to save the planet, as Kallos put it. New York City would be the largest city in the world to declare a climate emergency, according to Kallos, and join London, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Including the resolution, eight proposals (all focused on renewable energy and its implementation) were discussed at the Council environment committee meeting, which was also billed as an oversight hearing on the city’s efforts to move to renewables.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has goals for the implementation of renewable energy through his “New York City Green New Deal,” which aims to have city government commit to carbon neutrality by 2050 and 100% clean electricity by 2040.

The city plans to meet these goals through a variety of measures and programs, including the use of solar and wind energy, transitioning the extensive city vehicle fleet toward electric cars, and more.

One of the bills discussed at the Council hearing, Intro. 49, sponsored by Constantinides, requires the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to conduct a study on the installation of utility-scaled battery storage systems on city buildings.

A battery storage system is a “set of methods and technologizes utilizing a range of electrochemical storage solutions, including advanced chemistry batteries and capacitators, for the purpose of storing energy,” according to the bill. Battery storage systems store the energy from wind and solar power, and work to ensure electricity is uninterrupted, even if wind and solar assets are minimal.

The city’s renewable energy goals would be accomplished in part through battery storage systems in the city. Representatives of the mayor’s office testified in general support of the bills in front of the committee Monday. Susanne DesRoches, Christopher Diamond, and Anthony Fiore spoke on behalf of the de Blasio administration and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services about the goals for battery storage and the progress on achieving that goal.

“We expect growth in this sector to accelerate by a combination of the city’s commitment to expediting permitting for small and medium lithium battery installations,” said DesRoches, Deputy Director of Infrastructure and Energy at the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

Currently, there is one battery operated system at Jacobi Hospital and three additional systems being installed across the city, said Fiore, Deputy Commissioner and Chief Energy Management Officer for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

The goal for battery storage is 500 Megawatts by 2025 citywide. The city presently has about 18,000 kilowatt hours (or 18 Megawatts) in battery storage. However, this amount is expected to significantly increase with a state-incentivized program.

“There is a program that will be rolled out between now and 2023 where there’ll be 300 Megawatts of utility scale storage that’s incentivized by the state and procured by ConEdison,” DesRoches said.

A combination of Megawatts from the ConEdison program, public, and private storage facilities is expected to make up the 500 Megawatts goal by 2025. In terms of battery storage goals for city buildings, Fiore said that the city’s goals are consistent with the overall goal, but didn’t lay out specific figures on how city buildings would work to meet it.

Among the bills related to battery storage and geothermal technologies, several people testified about Intro. 140, which would require the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a feasibility study on the implementation of a community choice aggregation program.

Community choice aggregation allows local governments to purchase energy for entire communities as an alternative supplier to existing utility providers. CCAs often promote renewable energy, and those who testified about the program highlighted how CCAs could help the city meet its goal of 500 Megawatts by 2050.

“Existing Community Choice Aggregation Programs have been a resounding success in eight states thus far, and a similar program in New York City would likely be no exception. In 2017, over 750 CCAs provided 42 million megawatt hours of energy to an estimated 5 million consumers,” Michael Gersho, a Green Building Worldwide Research Fellow, said during his testimony.

Most of the testimonies about CCAs were in favor of the program but varied in implementation methods. Some said New Yorkers should be able to opt-in to the program while others said a better strategy would be letting people opt-out, meaning all citizens of a community would be automatically enrolled and could choose not to participate.

If the bill passes, and the proposed study finds that CCAs would be feasible in the city, the program would start March 1, 2020.

Along with Intros. 49 and 140, and Kallos’s resolution, the committee heard Intro. 51, which would establish a pilot program for a district-scale geothermal system and Intro. 269, which would require the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability establish a residential renewable energy pilot utilizing solar thermal district heating systems and photovoltaic systems.

The committee also heard Intro. 426, which would require the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to conduct a study on the costs of installing solar and thermal energy and heating systems in city-owned buildings; Intro. 1076, which requires the Department of Environmental Planning to study areas most suitable for geothermal mini-grids or district heating; and Intro. 1375, which calls for the creation of a database of geothermal energy systems in the city.

As expected, none of the bills or the resolution was voted on at Monday’s hearing. Negotiations around the legislation may continue internally at the Council or between the Council and the de Blasio administration before any of it moves ahead to a committee vote.

***
by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Calling for 'Climate Emergency' Declaration, Council Members Examine City's Progress in Renewable Energy Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Administration Doesn't Support Council Bill to Create Department of Sustainability & Climate Change https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8611-de-blasio-opposes-council-bill-to-create-department-of-sustainability-climate-change https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8611-de-blasio-opposes-council-bill-to-create-department-of-sustainability-climate-change Costa Constantinides City Council

Council Member Constantinides (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


At a recent hearing of the City Council Committee on Environmental Protection, the de Blasio administration expressed its opposition to a bill that would establish a New York City Department of Sustainability and Climate Change.

The bill, Intro. 1399, was introduced in February by Council Member Costa Constantinides, a Queens Democrat and chair of the environmental protection committee.

It would make New York City among the first in the nation to implement a municipal-level agency dedicated to sustainability and climate change, according to Constantinides, and would repeal the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and replace it with the new department, led by a commissioner. This change, going from part of the mayor’s office to a separate department, would likely mean more funding and staff for the responsibilities involved, signifying greater emphasis on the city’s efforts to fight climate change and prepare for its effects.

The commissioner of a Department of Sustainability and Climate Change would be responsible for all matters pertaining to recovery, resiliency, and sustainability, the three main pillars of the work involved as the city takes additional efforts to deal with and fight climate change. The department would develop and coordinate the implementation of policies, programs, and actions to meet the long-term needs of the city.

The proposed bill would also establish a Sustainability Advisory Board with members to include, at a minimum, “representatives from environmental, environmental justice, planning, architecture, engineering, oceanography, coastal protection, construction, critical infrastructure, labor, business, and academic sectors.” Most members would be appointed by the Mayor though it would also include the Speaker of the City Council and the chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection or their designees.

“It’s time for us to make as a city a larger investment, a deeper investment, and one that when this mayor leaves, and when this City Council leaves, that we’re leaving behind a stronger apparatus, an apparatus that would be in perpetuity in relation to climate change,” Constantinides said during the hearing.

But Mark Chambers, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, testified before the Council committee at the June 12 hearing, which also dealt with two other bills related to reducing methane emissions and leaks in the city, and expressed the de Blasio administration’s opposition to the bill to create a new department.

After highlighting what he deemed the many successful initiatives of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and the Mayor’s Office of Climate Policy and Programs, Chambers said a new department is not necessary. Key measures and structures are already in place to ensure that resiliency, sustainability, and recovery are embedded in all New York City agencies and initiatives, Chambers argued.

“Climate change is a cross-cutting issue requiring the specialized expertise of almost every city agency. By giving the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and the Mayor’s Office of Climate Policy and Programs the power to coordinate agency efforts, we are able to act with the urgency that our residents demand,” Chambers said in his testimony.

“Having said that, while the administration believes that our current climate teams are structured appropriately to meet the challenge, New York City residents need every tool at our disposal in this fight,” he continued. “We share your goals that were put forward in Intro. 1399 to prepare New York City for the impacts of climate change, build a more sustainable city and effectively respond to and recover from climate emergencies. In the coming months, we look forward to discussing strategies for effectively meeting these goals together.”

“I completely agree that doing more is not only advantageous but it’s absolutely necessary. To your original point about the benefits of making sure there is a legacy of this work, making sure that it has to continue, one of the hallmarks of our approach to our climate work is codifying it wherever possible,” Chambers said in his testimony. “So it’s not just working with the Council, it’s also with changing the energy codes, changing the building codes, changing the zoning codes to make sure that it is not subject to just prioritization but it’s become a culture of how we do work internally in the city as well as how the city at large has to redefine our environment.”

Constantinides acknowledged the work that the mayor’s office and the City Council have done to address climate change, its threats and impacts, but said the city needs a single agency to act as a conduit for all resiliency work moving forward. “The men and women of MOS and MOR have done an outstanding job and I want to thank them for that,” he said in his opening statement. “We cannot expect, however, that the several dozen employees in this office have the capacity to manage the sustainability policies for the over 300,000 strong city workforce. We want to give them more help.”

The new department would implement and monitor sustainability initiatives in New York City that have been launched in recent years such as the city’s commitment to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 and the city’s initiative to install 1 gigawatt of solar capacity citywide by 2030 -- enough to power 250,000 homes -- among many others. Led by Constantinides, the City Council just passed, with de Blasio’s support, sweeping legislation to mandate major carbon emissions reductions and green upgrades at the city’s largest buildings, and the de Blasio administration is moving ahead not only with continued recovery efforts from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, but new resiliency efforts like the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project.

The proposed bill would also require the commissioner of the Department of Sustainability and Climate Change to present a long-term sustainability plan for the city that would detail interim goals based on planning and sustainability indicators. The city would have to achieve each interim goal by no later than April 22, 2030 and long-term goals no later than April 22, 2050. (April 22 is Earth Day.)

Additionally, the commissioner must prepare and submit to the mayor and the speaker of the City Council an initial report on the city’s performance with respect to the identified sustainability indicators and long-term planning and sustainability efforts no later than April 22, 2020.

At the hearing, Constantinides asked Chambers how a new mayor would affect the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability’s current $17 million budget. “The discretion would still stand with the mayor, whether it’s agency or whether it’s mayoral office,” Chambers responded.

After Chambers and other representatives of the de Blasio administration testified, members of the public appeared before the Council to discuss the bills at hand, raising some questions about the proposed department bill.

“I’m concerned that there do not appear to be any enforcement mechanisms if agencies fail to meet their stated goals,” said Amy Ruther of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. “I’m also concerned that the members of the Sustainability Advisory Board are all appointed, not elected, and they are not required to seek input from the communities that their decisions will impact the most.”

***
by Jewel Antoine, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Administration Doesn't Support Council Bill to Create Department of Sustainability & Climate Change Mon, 17 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council Takes on Climate Change https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8460-max-murphy-podcast-the-city-council-takes-on-climate-change https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8460-max-murphy-podcast-the-city-council-takes-on-climate-change costa const 600

Council Member Constantinides (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


April 17, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council Takes on Climate Change

costa const 150City Council Member Costa Constantinides joined the show to discuss a package of legislation he's shepherding through the City Council that aim to fight climate change, including by major requirements for reducing building carbon emissions, as well as his vision for the future of Rikers Island, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council Takes on Climate Change Wed, 17 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Ends Term with Flurry of Oversight Hearings https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7328-city-council-ends-term-with-flurry-of-oversight-hearings https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7328-city-council-ends-term-with-flurry-of-oversight-hearings mmv hearing john mccarten city council

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


[Note: this article has been updated based on fluctuations in the City Council calendar]

A flurry of oversight hearings are filling the City Council calendar as the Council enters its final month of the four-year session, most notably a hearing slated to address controversies over NYCHA’s falsified lead inspection reports, a hearing to discuss the city’s progress in closing Rikers Island jails, and a hearing on integrating the city's segregated public schools.

More than a dozen oversight hearings are slated for Council committee discussion between November 20 and December 19 as this current iteration of the Council ends its term. A new class of Council members, many of whom are current officeholders who won reelection this fall, will be sworn in just after the new year, with a new Council Speaker chosen at the first full-body “stated meeting” in early January.

At oversight hearings, Council members typically question the relevant top officials in the mayoral administration about the topic at hand, before testimony from other stakeholders, like advocates, non-governmental experts, or members of the public. While the hearings can be informative to Council members, journalists, advocates, and the broader public, further Council action will likely be taken in the next session, when many committee chair positions will have changed hands.

Along with the oversight hearings on the NYCHA lead controversy and initial steps being taken toward closing Rikers jails, some of the scheduled oversight hearings deal with fighting homelessness, the NYPD’s role in school safety, mental health services for military veterans, evaluating workforce development programs, “the feasibility of microgrids,” and more.

The oversight hearing scheduled to discuss closing Rikers, set for December 4, comes on the heels of the de Blasio administration’s release of a request for proposals to assess existing jails as potential sites to accommodate additional inmates and the overall need for space across the boroughs other than State Island, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has said no new jail will be opened.

A 10-year plan issued by the mayor’s office in June committed to reducing the city’s jail population from the now roughly 9,500 to 5,000 within this time frame, while ensuring space in four borough jails for that smaller number of detainees.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited out of office at the end of the year, has been a driving force behind the mission to close Rikers jails. At a press conference on Thursday, she told Gotham Gazette that the hearing will be important in terms of examining progress on several fronts important to the larger goal.

“There’s already sites that exist and what we have to do is look at how we can create a modern day facility that really addresses some of the concerns that were raised and the recommendations made in the independent commission report,” she said, referring to the issue of identifying space and the RFP being put out by the city whereby a consultant will be hired to study resources and need. She also referred to the report put forth by a commission she empaneled led by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, which crafted its own 10-year plan for closing Rikers jails. "There’s stuff to talk about, there’s other recommendations and action items that have to be taken, action that has to be taken and we can’t do that alone so it’s a matter of figuring out, where do we stand, what’s next to do, how quickly can we get it done,” Mark-Viverito said.

The timeline for closing Rikers, the designation of responsibility, locations for housing detainees, the rate of population decline within the correctional facility, and a number of recent bail reform laws are topics of interest for the oversight hearing according to Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, which will host the hearing. Crowley will lead it, likely along with Mark-Viverito.

“This would be the most ideal way of wrapping up the session because it’s an immense endeavor and one that clearly the Department of Corrections doesn’t have the talents right now and the ability to address,” Crowley told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “I’m hoping that we can put together recommendations for the mayor’s office to help make this plan more of a reality.”

The NYCHA lead hearing was a recent addition to the slate, called by City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, in light of a Department of Investigations report revealing that NYCHA submitted false documentation of lead paint safety inspections never completed. The hearing, set for December 5, will discuss the practice and steps being taken to make things right, Torres said. According to the report, NYCHA failed to perform apartment inspections in 2013, 2014 and 2015 despite not having conducted the approximate 55,000 annual inspections required to satisfy the federal rule.

The DOI report asserted that false paperwork was submitted even after NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye learned of the department’s non-compliance with city and federal rules. Olatoye is expected to appear before the committee during the oversight hearing next month. “I want to ask the chairperson about the agency’s practice of misleading the federal government about conducting lead paint inspections. Why did those practices transpire? When did she find out those practices were happening? How long did it take her before she revealed it to the general public and revealed it to DOI?” Torres told Gotham Gazette in an interview.

In response to the DOI report and fallout, NYCHA announced personnel and programmatic changes. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has stated his support for Olatoye, whose departure has been called for by several people, most notably Public Advocate Letitia James.

The Department of Investigation, Council Member Torres, and Public Advocate James, among others, have called for an independent monitor to oversee NYCHA inspections in the future. “NYCHA no longer has the credibility to monitor its own lead paint inspections. The only hope for restoring public confidence is an independent monitor,” Torres said.

On December 7, the Council's education committee will hold an oversight hearing on "diversity in New York City schools," whereby the Council will check in on progress in reports from the Department of Education mandated by legislation co-sponsored by Council Members Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres.

"This hearing will begin with testimony from the NYC Department of Education (DOE) about the plan they released in the spring (“Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools”), the third-annual “School Diversity Accountability Act” report (just released last week), and other efforts such as their recently-announced plan for District 1 and the work they are beginning for District 15 middle-schools," according to an announcemnt from Lander's office.

"After that -- and just as important -- the hearing will also provide an opportunity for the City Council to hear public testimony from students, parents, educators, and advocates working to combat school segregation and create truly integrated schools," the Lander announcement adds.

An oversight hearing to discuss career pathways and workforce development systems is also scheduled, for November 27. New York City’s population is notably underprepared for the workforce, with more than 3.3 million residents over the age of 25 lacking an associate’s degree or other level of college education, according to July 2016 Census data estimates. Those with degrees are concentrated largely within Manhattan. The city’s launch of the Career Pathways program in 2014 was an initial step in addressing the issue; committed to improving working conditions for lower-wage workers emphasizing training and education and creating connections with city employers. While the program has shown some promise in reforming and overhauling the city’s approach to skill-building programs, Career Pathways still lacks permanent funding and has yet to establish the necessary system of referrals and partnerships, according to report released by Center for an Urban Future in 2016.

The oversight hearing will likely include an update on the status of the Career Pathways program from the city’s Department of Small Business Services and testimony from Stacy Woodruff of the Workforce Professionals Training Institute on changes within the job market, according to Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., chair of the Committee on Small Business.

“November’s small business committee hearing will be geared towards gaining a better understanding of the progress of the Career Pathways program announced in 2014. As New York’s economy continues to evolve, it is essential we understand the ways in which we can anticipate that evolution and ensure we prepare New Yorkers for the jobs that will come along with it,” said Cornegy, whose committee will co-host the hearing with the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Council Member Daneek Miller.

Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio announced a new plan to use city resources to spur 100,000 new, good-paying jobs, with an emphasis on making sure that current city residents and those who have long-lived in the city are able to fill the new jobs. The Career Pathways program is seen by many in economic development and job training circles as key to this effort, but experts say that it has been underfunded by the de Blasio administration.

Under this City Council, a bill was passed and signed by the mayor in 2016 to establish a separate Department of Veterans Affairs, outside of the Mayor’s Office. The new department has a much bigger staff and budget than the old Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, and works to place veterans in jobs through Workforce1 centers, reduce homelessness among military veterans, connect veterans to benefits and services, including mental health care. An oversight meeting on Monday, November 20 included discussion of the city’s progress in providing mental health services for veterans.

The hearing was co-hosted by the Committee on Mental Health, chaired by Council Member Andrew Cohen, and the Committee on Veterans, chaired by Council Member Eric Ulrich.

“This is the end of the City Council session so it’s the last opportunity to check in here on the status of the newly created Department of Veterans, the overall services available to veterans. I’d like to make an inquiry into the nexus between Thrive[NYC] and our veterans, the number of veterans being serviced through Thrive and just kind of an overall taking the temperature of where we’re at in terms of connecting veterans with mental health services,” said Cohen, referring to the de Blasio administration’s large mental health care program spearheaded by First Lady Chirlane McCray.

Also on the City Council calendar is an oversight hearing that took place Tuesday, November 21 to discuss “the feasibility of microgrids.” Local energy grids capable of disconnecting from central power sources and operating autonomously, microgrids are used to provide power when the traditional grid has been compromised by an emergency or major power outage. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which left 800,000 city residents without power, microgrids could offer an important alternative in helping deal with future storms.

Such grids also enable greater use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, potentially allowing city residents more flexibility in their energy sources. “These types of small electricity grids have the potential to change the way we generate and consume power “ said Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, in a statement to Gotham Gazette prior to the hearing, which his committee hosted in conjunction with the Committee on Consumer Affairs, chaired by Council Member Rafael Espinal. “We hope to learn more about how microgrids could be implemented in our city, how consumers could save money on utility bills, and hear feedback from environmental advocacy groups,” said Constantinides.

On Monday, November 20, the committees on housing and on general welfare held an oversight hearing on how the city’s housing department coordinates with the city’s homeless services department and its welfare agency “to address the homelessness crisis.”

Other scheduled oversight hearings, some of which have now occurred, include: a public safety committee hearing on “NYPD’s School Safety’s Role and Efforts to Improve School Climate”; the committees on higher education and technology on “CUNY Tech Incubators”; the committees on health and immigration on “Immigrant Access to Healthcare”; the governmental operations committee on “DCAS’s Energy Management and Energy Efficiency Initiatives”; the economic development committee on “NYC’s Sagging Air Cargo Industry”; the recovery and resiliency committee on “Update on assisting vulnerable populations in emergency evacuations”; the juvenile justice committee on “Trauma-Informed Services in the Juvenile Justice System”; the contracts committee on “Examining Existing Supports and Needs of Underrepresented Business Owners in City Procurement”; the aging committee on “Supporting Unpaid Caregivers”; the technology committee on "MODA's Data and Verification Plan"; the housing committee on "Housing Development Fund Corps. (HDFCs) & Transparency"; the environmental protection committee on "The City’s Wastewater Infrastructure – Current Condition and Future Plans"; the economic development committee on "Economic Impact of Vacant Storefronts"; and a few others. 

(Note: be sure to re-check the Council calendar as hearings are often postponed or canceled.)

(Note: this article has been updated with information about an additional hearing.)

***
by Grace Dixon for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Ends Term with Flurry of Oversight Hearings Sun, 19 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
4 Interesting Participatory Budgeting Project Winners https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6949-4-interesting-participatory-budgeting-project-winners https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6949-4-interesting-participatory-budgeting-project-winners pb vote via lander

(photo: Council Member Lander's office)


After an 11-day window in which over 100,000 residents of pertinent districts cast ballots, the City Council recently announced the winners of the 2016-17 participatory budgeting cycle. Thirty-one of 51 Council districts participated this year, leading to $34 million in capital funds going towards hyper-local projects chosen directly by the districts’ voters.

A total of 138 projects received funding in this cycle, with most districts backing three to five projects. Some districts awarded funding for many more projects -- District 38, which includes Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn and is represented by Democrat Carlos Menchaca, is funding 10 projects. Many project proposals were represented in multiple districts, such as laptops or air conditioning in schools and security cameras for places such as parks, schools, and police precincts, but many were more unique to the respective districts. While participatory budgeting funds are all for capital projects, like equipment or some kind of small construction work, and often show a lot of similarity to each other and to those funded in past cycles, a handful of winning projects stand out this year.

The participatory budgeting movement, which began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a means of decentralizing budgetary authority and handing power to the people, has since spread to numerous municipalities worldwide. It reached New York City in 2011, when City Council Members Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams launched participatory budgeting projects in their respective districts, dedicating about $1 million of the funds at their disposal to a community process.

While it’s not required of all Council districts, and it hasn’t been implemented citywide, the movement is clearly growing at a rapid pace in the city. Districts participating in participatory budgeting set aside, at minimum, $1 million of their capital budget allocation for public determination.

Participatory budgeting allows issues unique to each community to gain both attention and funding from a city budget process that may have overlooked them without direct citizen input. For instance, one out of four public school classrooms in the city lack air conditioning, which can become not only a health hazard for both students and teachers, but also an impediment to effective learning in the later months of the school term, which ends on June 28 this year.

Several districts voted to allocate participatory budgeting funds toward putting air conditioning in classrooms devoid of it. As it turns out, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his executive budget proposal, unveiled last month, includes almost $29 million to put air conditioning in every public school classroom in the city within five years. Another long-requested but never-delivered service, bus countdown clocks, also won funding in numerous districts. The countdown clocks have a lurid history, with the MTA removing physical clocks from some stops upon the development of a BusTime app by the Authority, which can alienate low-income New Yorkers who don’t possess smartphones.

“This is democracy in action,” City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito said in a statement announcing the results of the cycle, getting at the essence of participatory budgeting, at least for its proponents.

While those like Mark-Viverito, dozens of other Council members, a variety of community groups, and many residents are pleased with participatory budgeting, some critics say that it is a waste of time and Council staff resources (it is a labor heavy program for aides to Council members) and that the projects funded are ones that should really be taken into consideration in the regular budget process. Critics say that Council members are supposed to be gauging their constituents’ needs year-round anyway and influencing the larger budget process and allocating their member item funding accordingly.

The City Council won the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement for participatory budgeting in 2015 from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, winning $100,000 as a means of “replication and dissemination of their innovations.”

This year’s participatory budgeting winners include many typical projects, but a few others stand out.

The highest number of votes for any project in the city went to a proposal in District 39, represented by Democrat Brad Lander, who has been a vocal proponent of PB since he was one of the original four to pilot it in the city. The votes were for providing mobile showers for homeless people. The project received 5,293 votes. The program is administered by CHiPS, a homeless services non-profit that runs a soup kitchen and a residency program, and will be stationed in front of its soup kitchen in Park Slope.

District 39, which includes parts of Park Slope and Gowanus, has a relatively low number of homeless shelter beds. It is one of 18 City Council districts without any family shelter units, but does have nearly 300 adult single shelter beds. Mayor Bill de Blasio may soon change these numbers given that his new homeless shelter plan includes opening 90 new shelters of various types across the city. He has promised more beds for Park Slope, where he used to live and was the City Council member before being elected Public Advocate, then Mayor.

Another winning project is the addition of a courtroom for Benjamin Cardozo High School in District 23, represented by Barry Grodenchik; the school is known for its Mentor Law and Humanities program. All students in the program must participate in either mock trial or model UN in their sophomore year. The courtroom will not be the first in a Queens high school; Maspeth High School opened a student courtroom in February of last year.

In District 22, represented by Democrat Costa Constantinides, the Steinway Branch of the Queens Library will be fitted with solar panels after receiving over 1,000 votes in the district’s cycle. The library will join several other public library branches in the city that have adopted solar energy.

The total votes in Constantinides’ district more than doubled since last year. Constantinides said this shows “that neighborhood residents care about our public and community spaces.”

And in District 32, represented by Republican Eric Ulrich (the only one of three Republican Council districts participating in the program), Shore Front Parkway will be the site of new adult exercise equipment “adjacent to the boardwalk” as well as a “labyrinth/yoga/meditation area.” Projects in Ulrich’s district received the fewest votes of any district participating in the program this year; only 858 votes were cast in total.

The full list of winners of New York City’s 2016-17 Participatory Budgeting Cycle can be found here.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: the article has been clarified to better explain the homeless shelter beds currently in District 39.

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4 Interesting Participatory Budgeting Project Winners Tue, 23 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
New Urgency in Our City’s Fight for Our Planet’s Future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6639-new-urgency-in-our-city-s-fight-for-our-planet-s-future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6639-new-urgency-in-our-city-s-fight-for-our-planet-s-future Costa Constantinides

Council Member Constantinides, the author


As we continue to digest the results of the election, a troubling reality emerges that our core beliefs are under attack. As New Yorkers, we stand in unity with our neighbors, especially Muslim, Latino, and LGBTQ communities across our city.

We are also left with deep disappointment because President-elect Trump has attacked climate change as a hoax. He has pledged to undo American efforts to prevent a global warming catastrophe, including retreat from the Paris Agreement on Climate, Clean Power Plan, and new EPA regulations.

It is clear that our city and other local governments need to lead the way on protecting equality, as well as protecting our planet.

As Chair of the New York City Council's Environmental Protection Committee, I remain focused on making our city greener and more sustainable. We learned four years ago with Hurricane Sandy that the effects of climate change can cause devastating damage to our homes, infrastructure, and places we hold dear. Since then, New York has made great strides in resilience and sustainable building.

With a strong environmental partner in Mayor de Blasio, we have already begun working toward our commitment to reduce our carbon emissions 80% by 2050 and continue to invest in environmental education and programming. The City Council recently passed legislation I sponsored to boost renewable energy including solar, geothermal, and bioheat.

We have also helped encourage sustainable habits such as taking public transportation more and using less air conditioning. Earlier this month, we passed a bill, Intro. 1124, which will encourage more New Yorkers to drive electric vehicles by implementing a pilot program for publicly accessible charging stations.

On Monday, I will chair an Environmental Protection Committee oversight hearing on emissions that come from power plants throughout the city.

It is time for us to be bolder in our efforts to lead on environmental policy, through innovative policies and careful oversight, like the efforts mentioned above.

We have introduced legislation that advocates for environmental justice in our most underserved communities, making New York the first large city in the nation that would have such a commitment.

Knowing that 75% of our emissions come from buildings, we are exploring the use of wind energy in our city, allowing neighbors to tap into the same geothermal energy source to power their own homes, and solar thermal installation on city-owned buildings. New York has already been a worldwide role model in sustainability and we must continue to keep this work a top priority.

Now is the time that we must stand up and fight for our planet’s future.

***
City Council Member Costa Constantinides represents the 22nd Council District, which includes his native Astoria along with parts of Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. He serves as Chair the Council's Environmental Protection Committee and sits on six additional committees. On Twitter @Costa4NY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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New Urgency in Our City’s Fight for Our Planet’s Future Sun, 27 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at BQX Funding Plans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6325-a-closer-look-at-bqx-funding-plans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6325-a-closer-look-at-bqx-funding-plans bqx presser bdb

photo via nyc.gov


In his State of the City address on February 4, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a major new transportation project: a “state-of-the-art” streetcar that will run the waterfront on a 16-mile route between Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Astoria in Queens. This Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or the BQX, has drawn a somewhat mixed response. The de Blasio administration quickly publicized support from a variety of business and civic leaders, elected officials, and several transportation advocates. Some transportation experts and residents of the neighborhoods where the BQX will run remain skeptical.

De Blasio hailed it as another key step in fighting inequality by offering more mass transportation to underserved New Yorkers, especially those in the public housing complexes near the route. It would also be a project the city would control itself, unlike the MTA, a state agency that runs the trains and buses. One immediate question, of course, was ‘who’s going to pay for it?’

On February 16, the administration offered up more details in a media release that included the line “Self-financed streetcar line would generate 28,000 jobs and over $25 billion in wages and economic activity for New Yorkers.” A key phrase being “self-financed.”

The project is estimated to cost about $2.5 billion, which the city will raise through a method of value capture and creation unlike the usual procedure of financing capital projects. Instead of selling municipal bonds to borrow money and paying those off from city revenues, as is done for capital funds, the city will create a non-profit entity -- likely a Local Development Corporation (LDC) -- which will then issue tax-exempt bonds to raise funds. This debt will be paid by “capturing” the increases in property taxes of existing real estate and new developments along the streetcar corridor. In effect, the plan is that BQX will pay for itself with the revenue it creates.

Although LDCs are non-profit entities that are usually set up by private individuals and businesses interested in developing their communities, the city can also set up LDCs like the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corporation (HYIC) and give them bond-issuing authority to raise funds.

Private LDCs often receive support from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a city-run nonprofit organization that promotes businesses and economic growth. For instance, the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center LDC has received more than $4.4 million since 2014 from the City Council and the Brooklyn Borough President through EDC to convert an auto parts warehouse into a multi-tenant manufacturing center.

The city is nowhere near setting up the nonprofit -- officials are currently courting public opinion and further assessing the BQX proposal -- but a similar structure was used under Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the redevelopment of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side. HYIC was set up in 2005 to raise funds by issuing $3 billion in bonds for projects including the extension of the 7-train subway line and building green spaces from West 30th to 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. This is an analogous example of how the BQX will be funded and built.

“As imagined, there would be no new taxes,” said an official from EDC. “This project will make it so that value of properties will go up so property taxes will go up nominally. Property taxes sliced off the top would be funnelled towards debt service.” In other words, increased property tax revenue is used to pay back the bonds.

The EDC official added that there will be revenue through property taxes on new development along the corridor.

Two key mechanisms of value capture are tax increment financing (TIF), which seems to be planned for BQX, and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT). TIF is formulaic while PILOT is discounted payments negotiated with developers instead of regular property taxes. The administration has not clarified yet whether they will use both tools.

In the case of Hudson Yards, HYIC garners revenue chiefly through PILOT, Tax Equivalency Payments (TEP), which are property taxes collected by the city from new development in the area, and District Improvement Bonuses paid by private developers for the right to build additional density, among other sources.

City officials have not yet provided a detailed funding plan or fully explained why they are choosing value capture, which may have advantages in that it doesn’t add to existing capital debt, but also risks leading to higher costs that take longer to pay off. This was apparent in the years after the Hudson Yards project began. By 2014, the city had paid about $439 million to service HYIC debt owing to shortfalls in projected revenue. That’s added onto the millions in cost overruns that the city also had to bear. The city had signed an Interest Support Agreement to service HYIC debt in the case of revenue shortfall.

“There can be risks,” said George Sweeting, deputy director of the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan publicly-funded budget watchdog. Sweeting pointed out the disconnect between when the investment is made and when the city can start capturing value and making payments, since development doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why, in the case of Hudson Yards, the city agreed to pay off part of the debt directly from its general fund in the form of interest support payments and HYIC raised additional revenue by selling developers the right to create additional density.

“It depends on how fast you think development will occur,” Sweeting said. “Some of where the [streetcar] is going has significant development already,” he added, noting that land along the waterfront has already become more valuable in recent years. “You might not be able to attribute [further growth] to the BQX.”

With the traditional model of capital funding, Sweeting said, the city can “cross-subsidize” using other resources to pay off debt. That’s not necessarily the case with a dedicated value-capture scheme. “It can take longer to pay back,” he said.

Bridget Fisher, associate director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School, highlighted many of the risks in value capture funding in a report from July. Looking at the Hudson Yards redevelopment project, she sought to dispel the “myths” of self-financing.

“Like Hudson Yards, describing these projects as self-financing is a rhetorical tool that can be misleading,” Fisher told Gotham Gazette. “There’s nothing magical about value capture. It’s still debt and it’s still expensive. It’s a decision to go outside the municipal bond market that adds cost, but the city’s still on the hook for the cost.”

These bonds, issued by a nonprofit rather than the city directly, are also in a “legal limbo,” she said, since they’re not backed by the city but by an entity created by it. Adding to that, bond buyers receive higher interest rates because the bonds are not directly backed by the city, but still have the security of knowing the city will pay them back. “It does pay for itself,” Fisher said, “but all capital projects pay for themselves. They’re paid for with debt and debt is paid back with profits.”

“The question to me is, why choose a route that’s more expensive when you have the capacity to do it through the normal city capital budget, which also has democratic checks and balances?” Fisher added.

There is an advantage to the mechanism, depending on your budgeting perspective. The city has a constitutionally mandated debt limit and value capture funding does not add to it. “It preserves the general obligation debt capacity for other important projects,” Sweeting said.

According to a report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s debt limit in fiscal 2016 was $85.18 billion. As of July 1, 2015 (start of the 2016 fiscal year), the city’s outstanding debt counted towards the debt limit was $57.43 billion, leaving $27.76 billion in debt-incurring power for the city. For fiscal 2017, the city’s debt is about $72 billion, owing to capital plan additions in this year’s budget.

“The only pro,” said Fisher, “is that in an environment hypersensitive to spending, local officials can provide growth opportunities and still maintain a rhetoric of fiscal discipline.”

“There is no absolute right or wrong,” said IBO’s Sweeting. “There are a lot of considerations to take into account -- how much new development there will be, the time between when you make investments and development will occur, and how you structure the value capture.”  

For the City Council members whose districts will be served by the BQX, funding is just one of the many concerns about the project. Council Member Carlos Menchaca represents Sunset Park, at one end of the line, and Council Member Costa Constantinides represents the other end, Astoria.

“As we get more thoroughly through the process, there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered in my mind both on financing and the actual route and how it’s going to affect the communities,” Constantinides told Gotham Gazette shortly before an unrelated hearing at City Hall.

He intends to be a strong voice throughout the process, he said, and wants to be part of the LDC when it is set up. So far, he believes the city is taking the right approach to community outreach and seeking input on the project - EDC held its first BQX visioning session in Astoria on Monday night. “That is a welcome change from when we used to have a mayoralty that would dictate to us how things were going and we’d have to respond,” Constantinides said.

The Council member sees the potential in value capture funding, but also the risks. “I just wouldn’t want to see residents that are further away from the site…One, two, three-family homeowners that live two blocks from where this would potentially be...to see them get crushed by some sort of increase in their taxes would just not be where I was at,” he said. For homeowners, additional property value can be a great thing, but if you do not intend to sell in the near term, making larger property tax payments based on new assessments can be challenging.

Menchaca reiterated these concerns. “I want to make sure that residents of affected neighborhoods like Sunset Park and Red Hook have a leading voice at the beginning of the process and in a way that determines the exact details and impact of the project,” he said in a statement. He emphasized that the BQX could provide relief to “transit deserts” like Red Hook and create better mass-transit for the growing manufacturing zone in Sunset Park. But he recognizes that it could also contribute to gentrification and displace existing residential and commercial tenants.

“We've all seen ‘it will pay of itself’ projects fail to live up to expectations or have unintended consequences,” he added. “The impact of BQX – including the financial impact – must be studied carefully in public with residents at the center of the conversation.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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A Closer Look at BQX Funding Plans Tue, 10 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000