Gotham Gazette Thu, 25 Feb 2021 01:59:26 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Save Our Waterfronts from Our Open Skies: New York & New Jersey jmm waterfront op

Manhattan from a helicopter (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin, the author)

“I care passionately about our waterfront,” says Hoboken City Council Member Phil Cohen. “It’s the jewel of Hoboken, directly across from the Empire State Building. We fought so long and hard to get our world-class waterfront, endured epic battles, and now we have helicopters constantly buzzing us in our own park. Somehow the helicopters are always there.” 

That’s because the most intrusive helicopters take off from Kearny or Linden in Cohen’s own state, fly up the Hudson, cross Manhattan in the 80s to hover over Central Park, fly down the East River, and then often joyride around the Empire State Building, Chelsea, and Lower Manhattan before heading out to hover over Governors Island and the Brooklyn waterfront, before returning to New Jersey, where they often circle the waterfronts of Jersey City and Hoboken.

And, of course, the helicopters routinely loiter around the Statue of Liberty to give maximum exposure for their clients’ Instagram accounts.

Sam Pesin, an activist designated the “Superhero of Liberty State Park” by InsiderNJ, has fought to the death one harmful invasion after another into Liberty State Park -- an amusement theme park in 1977, a commercial amphitheater in 1980, 8,000 luxury condo units in 1982, converting the historic rail road terminal into a doll museum in 1982, turning the park into a golf course in 1991, and again in1995, followed by another amphitheater proposal, a water park, a new marina, or even installing solar panels on the park’s recreation fields, plus a Formula One racetrack with viewing stands, writes Al Sullivan, and a high-end golf course. Pesin helped save Liberty State Park from all of this, only to see it inundated with low-flying helicopters, especially on weekend days and evenings. When the Sierra Club was filming “Wildlife of Liberty State Park,” for example, it had to stop repeatedly because the helicopter noise was too intrusive. Pesin is hopeful that the same coalition of community activists and environmentalists that halted other aggressions in the park can be mobilized against helicopters. He has a point. The coalition put together by Stop the Chop NY NJ includes both United States senators from New Jersey, U.S. Congressional Rep. Abio Sires, and mayors of Bayonne, Edgewater, Guttenberg, Hoboken, Jersey City, Weehawken, and several more.

Cohen and Pesin are voicing a parallel grievance to that published by former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Governors Island Alliance executive director Merritt Birnbaum in the New York Times in 2016: “In recent years, New York City has invested over $2 billion in spectacular new waterfront parks. But that investment, and New Yorkers’ enjoyment of their parks and neighborhoods, is being ruined by an invasion of noisy, polluting tourist helicopters.” 

Yet somehow, four years later, our waterfront parks are still being invaded, as is virtually every treasured landmark in our city. 

Manhattan Borough President’s Data Analysis
For years constituent complaints about helicopter noise and pollution have made up the largest and often angriest set of complaints received by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office. (“My biggest constituent issue on nice days,” Brewer said in 2012, when she represented the West Side in the City Council.) But this summer—in the midst of the covid lockdown—complaints unexpectedly shot up, coinciding with the unprecedented onslaught of tourist helicopters from New Jersey. 

 In response Brewer established a task force composed of officials, academics, and activists from both New York and New Jersey. Working from 311 data Zhi Keng He of BetaNYC showed the task force the dramatic pattern in Manhattan heli complaints, contrasting 2019’s relatively low numbers with this year’s record levels.


Yet while 2019’s complaints are low relative to this year, the increase began in September 2019, which saw 404 complaints, up to 729 in December. In 2020, complaints spiked in June—three months into the covid crisis—at 1,061, and hit 1,541 in November.

 Citywide complaints follow a similar pattern, with the spike in June partly reflecting helicopter activity over protests, after which “Other” complaints took off.

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The categorization into NYPD, News Gathering, and Other is by definition rough since 311 relies on the caller to report precisely. Those who use Flight Radar24 or Flight Aware are able to file their complaints accurately, but those without the apps will be guessing. In normal times, the NYPD is not the culprit. All of its seven helicopters are radar-tracked by air traffic control, and only two are assigned to routine patrol (as opposed to rescue), with the result that it is rare for the NYPD to deploy more than one helicopter at a time. Police pilots try to fly at high altitude “to avoid unnecessary disturbance to the public,” says the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information. And the NYPD does not block its signal. 

One reason New Yorkers think that low-flying helicopters must be NYPD is that so many use search lights. “Of course that helicopter is NYPD,” said one of my neighbors, pointing straight up. “Who else would be allowed to direct a search light straight into our building for 15 minutes?”

Other culprits often mistaken for NYPD are news-gathering stations like PIX-11 News and ABC-7’s EyeWitness News, whose helis hover persistently—over New Year’s weekend they buzzed Manhattan for hours at a time. News helis fly in from New Jersey, circle the entire city repeatedly, often below 1,000 feet, and hang over neighborhoods and landmarks. How much of their activity is genuine news gathering?



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What is to be done? Brewer has taken the first step, which is to set up a joint New York-New Jersey task force and begin the analysis. Those living on both sides of the Hudson might ask where this helicopter traffic is coming from and what can be done.

Kearny’s River Terminal Development
The Kearny Heliport (HHI Heliport) in New Jersey launches all of the doors-off FlyNYON tourism flights over New York and New Jersey, although some regular tours also fly from other heliports. (FlyNYON is the notorious sightseeing company whose doors-off tour crashed into the East River in March 2018, killing five passengers.) River Terminal Development is a subsidiary of the Hugo Neu Corporation, a family business for three generations of Neus based in New York. Hugo Neu Corporation describes itself as “a privately held company with deep experience in investing, building and managing businesses in recycling, real estate and related industries.” It prides itself on its Kearny Point development, which redeveloped a historic shipyard into “a diverse community of pioneering businesses,” somewhat similar to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. 

Subsidiary RTC Properties, Inc. itself has 125 total employees across all of its locations and generates $20.76 million in sales. Requests for an interview have gone unanswered but clearly the owners of Kearny Heliport need to be involved in the public discussion of helicopters. Without their facility, the most egregious flights would not be made.

Helicopter Industry Reluctant to Help
Across the country the helicopter industry is organized into regional lobbying groups fighting hard against any further regulation or restriction on their activities. The Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which includes the New York metropolitan region, pledges its good citizenship: “For decades ERHC has worked with the elected officials and community leaders to reduce and eliminate impacts to the local communities.” Yet ERHC has done nothing to temper the behavior of its member, FlyNYON. This is in contrast to its active involvement in the helicopter hostilities of the Hamptons, where ERHC helped broker a modification in routes that temporarily moderated acrimony, ameliorating problems on the South Shore of Long Island while generating new ones on the North Shore.

 While industry leaders privately express concern about the aggressive, low-flying flights harassing New York and New Jersey waterfronts and landmarks, virtually no industry spokesperson or executive seems willing to speak publicly—or even combat these companies privately.

 The one exception is Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of BLADE Urban Air Mobility, who says tersely of the doors-off tours, “They follow no rules and are dangerous, in my opinion.” Wiesenthal has been working with the LaGuardia tower and BLADE operators to eliminate, wherever possible, all overflight of Manhattan. The problem is that Central Park is an official route on helicopter charts and is the LGA tower’s preferred route across Manhattan. Wiesenthal says that except when mandated to follow the Central Park route, a BLADE flight will never fly over Manhattan.


The Federal Aviation Administration
Like all American airspace, New York’s skies are controlled by the FAA, which basically adheres to its “freedom to fly” principle treating the skies of America — including skies over densely populated cities — as highways. Robert Gottheim, District Director for Congressional Rep. Jerry Nadler, who has long been active on helicopter issues, says, “The FAA could change New York’s airspace entirely on its own if it chose. It could designate all the airspace to be controlled by LaGuardia, followed by no clearance. Or it could change the ceiling, essentially eliminating helicopters. Or just ban them all together. All of this is totally within their regulatory authority. They could do it all on their own without any input from Congress. People have a right to a high quality of life in their own residences. It’s not as if they bought a house by an airport and then started to complain. Manhattan isn’t supposed to be an airport."

The bad news is that FAA chief Steve Dickson, who has done nothing to ameliorate helicopter problems over New York’s crowded airspace, has announced that “he intends to stay on under the Biden administration, to fill out the remainder of his 5-year term ending in 2024,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the good news is that although the FAA is a classic clientele agency that views its mission as the promotion of the welfare of the industry it’s supposed to be regulating, it is nonetheless housed within the federal Department of Transportation, soon to be headed by Biden appointee Pete Buttigieg. Said Biden about the appointment: “This position stands at the nexus of so many of the interlocking challenges and opportunities ahead of us. Jobs, infrastructure, equity, and climate all come together at the DOT.” Gottheim is hopeful that the New York Congressional Delegation will be able to work successfully with Buttigieg, whose own presidential campaign had emphasized “high-quality, zero-emissions” mass transit for every city of over 100,000 residents. 

Nadler and his congressional colleagues will be advocating hard for their HR 4880 bill prohibiting nonessential helicopters over New York. Gottheim says, “We hope that with a new administration headed by a Democratic president we can move this legislation.”

An Old Technique from NJ
In a previous incarnation of the great helicopter wars two elected New Jersey officials, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Congressional Rep. Albio Sires, worked with the FAA Eastern Regional Administrator in 2013 to reach an agreement reducing both the flight hours and the number of helicopters operating out of Paulus Hook Heliport. In other words, it can be done, even if it’s not done very often. Elected officials could work with, for example, Kearny and Linden to reduce flight hours and number of helicopters.

Similarly, despite their assurances that they can do nothing, New York City officials could regulate some of the most egregious helicopter behavior if they wished. Rob Wiesenthal points out that tour helicopters must sometimes land in Manhattan, that they often want to refuel here because it’s cheaper and faster, and some tour companies offer charters from New York City heliports. These activities open the door to local regulation. While the FAA says heliports can’t be selective about who is allowed to land, they can ban dangerous or objectionable behavior, such as failure to adhere to the 2016 agreement. Any New Yorkers regularly using the FlightRadar24 app knows that every week several helicopters joyride around New York after taking off from one of the three heliports.

Trump Temporary Flight Restrictions
Because of the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency the FAA drew a huge circle around Midtown’s Trump Tower, from 35th Street to roughly 80th Street and the Hudson to the East River, as a TFR zone or “National Defense Airspace.” This forced pilots north—thus the angry complaints to Brewer from her constituents above 80th Street and below 35th—and reinforced the use of Central Park as a highway. In theory the TFR should be modified with Trump’s exit, although there has been some chatter that restrictions may be retained if Trump asserts New York residency, even partial residency.


The 2021 Mayoral Race
While Mayor de Blasio has done nothing to ameliorate the helicopter onslaught, Stop the Chop and other activists intend to make the industry an important issue in the crowded 2021 mayoral race to succeed the term-limited de Blasio. Several candidates have been quick to designate climate change as a key issue, and of course a safe one, but none has yet said a word about helicopters. Why do we tolerate hundreds of aging, rattling, tour helicopters—flying for the most trivial of reasons—to burn fuel and produce substantial CO2 emissions while hovering noisily over our waterfront, parks, and landmarks?

The country will have a new president soon and New York will elect a new mayor in November. This is the moment for pushing hard politically. We already have a next president who has vowed to work collegially. Let’s get a mayor who knows how to reach across the Hudson, as Gale Brewer has done, and engage our neighbors in this fight to regain our waterfronts.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a long-time editor and writer on cities. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

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Save Our Waterfronts from Our Open Skies: New York & New Jersey Sun, 10 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Brewer Joins Candidate Forum as City Council District 6 Race Heats Up Gale Brewer

Gale Brewer (photo: Gale Brewer on flickr)

The five Democratic candidates running for City Council District 6, a seat based on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, appeared Thursday night at a forum hosted by the West Side Democrats. The six Democratic candidates running for Manhattan Borough President in this year’s election also appeared before the club. The primaries will be in June and will feature ranked-choice voting.

Forum participants answered questions focused on a range of issues, including public and private housing, homelesssness, transit, land use and development, small businesses, the city’s Open Streets program, concern over federal aid, and more.

The five candidates for City Council District 6 are Gale Brewer, the term-limited Manhattan Borough President and former City Council District 6 representative seeking to retake that seat; Sara Lind, a member of Community Board 7 and an attorney; Jeffrey Omura, an actor, activist, and labor leader; Zack Weiner, a screenwriter, actor, and film producer; and David Gold, the executive director of a non-profit and a former litigator.

Gale Brewer
Brewer kicked off the District 6 portion of the forum with discussion of her 12-year experience on the City Council following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which she said prepared her to tackle the current coronavirus pandemic. “Between the zoning, small business, schools, all the issues of affordable housing, I think I can contribute with some knowledge, so we don't make mistakes of the past,” Brewer said.

With 12 years in the City Council and eight years as Manhattan Borough President, Brewer is considered the candidate to beat in this race. There has been some grumbling about her desired return to the Council, though, in terms of it blocking the way for new leadership in the area to flourish.

Asked about helping small businesses crushed during the pandemic and generating tax revenue for the city, Brewer said her numbers-driven approach as a “data nerd” coupled with her goal of increased transparency for the city budget, including capital and expenses, will prove pivotal in setting policies to help the local economy. She listed a series of solutions, such as budget cuts, including removal of non-essential services, eradicating the commercial rent tax below 92nd Street, prioritizing “mom and pop” tenants via unspecified zoning regulation, and legislation that would create a database tracking empty properties.

“I have perhaps more land use experience than anybody I know,” said Brewer, when asked about her view on City Council deference to the local member on land use proposals that need Council approval. Brewer did not directly answer the question on member deference, but went on to express her full support for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s new comprehensive planning proposal, pointing to the inadequacy of 197-a plans as seen in Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem despite community protest. “That [community] board did a 197-a plan and Columbia University just rolled all over them,” Brewer said.

“I have perhaps more land use experience than anyone I know,” said Brewer, reflecting on her career. She highlighted a bill she spearheaded to create a city charter revision commission in 2018; while the charter commission generated modest reforms, she admitted it was a “disaster” on land use policy because “members appointed by the mayor were a hundred percent against [comprehensive planning].” She continued, “Comprehensive discussion planning is what's needed,” again referring back to the new Council proposal, which the charter commission did not pick up at the time to present to voters on the ballot along with what it did advance.

Brewer described herself as a “strong advocate” for open space, which she called a “silver lining” of the pandemic in terms of enabling socially distanced outdoor activities, but that regulation of it is also in need of reform, referring to incidents where police officers unfairly enforced social distancing rules on the Upper West Side. She also said that she believes more streets should be closed off to vehicle traffic, and that she is a long-time supporter of bike lanes.

Asked if she would seek the City Council Speaker role if elected to her former seat, Brewer said, “The answer is I hope to get elected to the City Council, and then we’ll see. I’m not ambitious to be the Speaker. I’m ambitious to get the work done.”

Sara Lind
Lind, a former corporate and immigration attorney, as well as a community board member for District 7, has made housing a main focus area of her campaign for City Council. She said at the forum that she will pursue “bold action” to address the range of issues that COVID-19 has worsened, including the lack of affordable housing, homelessness, climate change, outdated transportation, and public education.

Citing her diverse professional experience, which includes working as a policy consultant for the CIA, a liaison to the 20th Precinct of the NYPD, and a member of the city-wide participatory budgeting committee, Lind said she has learned that “no neighborhood is immune from city-wide problems.”

Lind discussed various strategies for achieving her vision, such as employing “creative zoning and pedestrian enhancements” along Broadway, “driving foot traffic to the street, which will create a thriving retail and arts and culture district.”

“It is possible to end homelessness. We know this because other cities in the world have done it,” Lind said. She spotlighted her housing plan as designed to achieve this goal, starting with moving away from the shelter system, which “perpetuates homelesnes” while costing “billions of dollars.” As alternatives to the shelter system, Lind suggested “permanent affordable housing for everyone,” “addiction and mental health treatment,” and more broadly, rent-regulating some currently market-rate apartments to make the city affordable for everyday people. Lind has been vocal about boosting affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods to off-set burdens placed on low-income and communities of color and proposed to upzone portions of the 6th Council District so that more housing can be built.

When asked how she would raise revenue for the city, Lind said that she would prioritize investment in a Green New Deal. “If you put that investment into building new environmentally-friendly housing, updating our transportation systems, building out a sustainable, resilient city, you also create jobs, and that boosts the economy,” she said. She also said that the city needs to reform its property tax system “so the wealthiest among us are paying their fair share.”

Asked about the problem of idling police vehicles on pedestrian sidewalks, Lind said she would encourage the Department of Transportation to enforce traffic rules rather than having the police enforce themselves.

“I absolutely support a comprehensive planning process,” Lind said when asked about City Council member deference, because “piecemail decisions” fail to “tackle problems at a city-wide level.” Additionally, she said, “I think that everyone should, of course, listen to the member from the district because they know the district best,” but added, “I would not always defer to members.”

Jeffrey Omura
If elected, Omura would be the district’s first openly gay City Council memebr, as well as the first Japanese-American to win elected office in New York State, he said. A self-described “artist, activist, and labor leader,” Omura cited his experience as a union officer for the Actors' Equity Association, negotiating “record-breaking wage increases” and helping secure a “$15 billion indirect art relief found in the most recent federal relief package” as part of a coalition of organizers.

When asked how he would create revenue for the city in lieu of additional federal aid, Omura proposed a “multi-pronged approach,” including sales tax on goods and services sold online, taxing digital advertising, which he pointed out has become a large and profitable business, and “legalizing and taxing marijuana.” Omura suggested a tax on vacant luxury apartments and expressed tentative support for Municipal Assistance Corporation bonds; the MAC closed in 2008 after the $10 billion worth of bonds that were sold to keep the city afloat during the financial crisis of 1975 were paid off. Omura also said,” We need to start taxing our ultra millionaires and our billionaires on their wealth.”

Omura expressed concern about the survival of small businesses, saying “we need to make sure that they have access to PPP loans,” in reference to the pandemic federal relief program. “We also need to avoid minimum rent provisions in mortgages,” which prevent landlords from lowering rents, he said, and suggested incentivizing small business owners with “tax breaks to business owners who have three or fewer locations so that it can compete with large chain stores.”

Omura spoke in favor of installing transit signal priority software at all intersections to reduce traffic and pollution and help buses move faster. Noting that car ownership has risen during the pandemic, he suggested creating a parking permit system that would prioritize parking for residents instead of commuters. He also said that he is in favor of expanding bike lanes and resdesigning streets such that pedestrian traffic is increased along commercial corridors.

On Council member deference, Omura said that he is supportive of comprehensive planning, saying, “we need to include the community in all of our planning processes.” He added that his experience as a union leader qualifies him to galvanize community input in planning decisions.

Zach Weiner
Weiner, a screenwriter, actor, and film producer, said the most important issues facing the Upper West Side are homelessness and vacant storefronts, which he aims to solve via a “four-pronged plan.”

Weiner struck an optimistic tone on the prospect of additional federal aid to the city, saying, “I’m really hopeful that the Democrats, now that they control the Senate, thank god, are going to be bailing us out and doing what they need to do and what should have been done nine months ago and provide relief to businesses that had no other options right now but to close.”

But Weiner pointed out that many stores that were forced to close were struggling prior to the pandemic, which is why he is advocating for an initiative called “start-up retail,” describing it as a “revenue-sharing agreement between entrepreneurs and landlords, where the entrepreneur will be able to pay for the utilities and pay 10% of their revenue to the landlord.” The initiative would include short-term leases, which is a growing trend in the real estate industry, according to Weiner. This will reduce barriers to entry for aspiring entrepreneurs, he said.

David Gold
“I'm running because we're at a rare moment when there's not only a need for real change, but also a hunger for real change, and I think we need to think really big and really creatively about it,” said Gold. A lifelong New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side, Gold told the West Side Democrats, “I share your values and I have the skills to fight for them.”

Gold spotlighted two aspects of his policy platform: The first is called “democratic resource allocation,” which would function similarly to participatory budgeting but on a larger scale, addressing systemic issues like the demise of local businesses and housing insecurity. The second involves pushing New York City as a leader of a nationwide movement to “remove the right wing bias from our federal election system, to get rid of the electoral college, and make Congress democratic.”

When asked how he would generate revenue for the city in the absence of federal aid, Gold said, “It's exactly the anti-city federal election system that's preventing us from getting the aid that we need at a time to handle a crisis that's not of our own making. So, we need to change the federal election system in the meantime.”

Gold added that his proposed democratic resource allocation could be applied to the issue of empty storefronts, characterizing it as a participatory system that would collect residents’ views on which kinds of businesses should receive additional aid and which “have it too easy as it is.” The results would take effect via the property tax system. According to Gold, “It would also be a way of saving scarce resources because it wouldn't actually require an increase in revenue to save businesses.”

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Brewer Joins Candidate Forum as City Council District 6 Race Heats Up Mon, 11 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Can the Manhattan Borough President Stop the Chop? presi stop rd

Helicoptering over the city (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Thanks to an onslaught of out-of-town tourist helicopters and small planes flying over New York landmarks, a quiet weekend day in Central Park or Governors Island or the Brooklyn waterfront has become a thing of the past. Any revered site from the Noguchi Museum in Queens to Liberty Island south of the Battery is now subject to inundation by 85 to 95 flights starting at dawn on Saturdays and finishing at unpredictable hours, with some flying as late as midnight Sunday. And while helicopters in the old days tried to maintain heights of 1,900 feet to minimize noise, they now routinely hover at 1,000 feet, circling and swooping to maximize passenger views and photo opps. 

But New York has an advocate on the horizon—Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who is now doing everything in her power to tackle this new set of low-flying, loud, polluting helicopters operating in unprecedented numbers. While first setting up a task force of elected officials from New York and New Jersey to examine the issues and propose solutions, her second step is to gather data—no minor feat given that the helicopter industry refuses to release flight data to the public, as does the federal monitoring agency, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which asserts dismissively, "Any helicopter may fly over Manhattan." Not in Brewer’s view: “No issue has produced the number of complaints through the years as helicopters.” Indeed, an analysis by The City showed a more than 130% increase in helicopter noise complaints, rising to 7,758 as of November 13 of this year versus 4,400 for all of 2019.

“The good news is that the industry has agreed to participate,” Brewer told me. “All stakeholders will be meeting, and we hope to make headway in stopping the tourism from above.” In a first for them, the FAA has even agreed to send expert observers to provide input and feedback, Brewer said.

Simply straightening out who’s flying above us is crucial because there have been many misunderstandings over the last few months. The NYPD, for example, is not a major culprit. Yes, the Aviation Unit has 8 helicopters, and some of them flew low and aggressively during the summer’s protests, but as FlightRadar24 shows, the NYPD seldom has more than one helicopter in the air at a time. To clarify this and other problems, Brewer has asked the NYPD to provide helicopter data that they don’t currently make public. She is also requesting a joint meeting with the television stations that use helicopters. In the past the media have used the protections of the First Amendment to fly with impunity, but those days may be numbered as New Yorkers discover via flight apps that it’s the media hovering above their neighborhoods for hours at a time sounding like giant dental drills in the sky.

Doors-Off Heli Hell from Across the Hudson
We live in odd times. We know that. The onslaught of doors-off tourist helicopter flights from New Jersey is a product, first, of the pandemic itself which shut competing New York heliports, and, second, the social media boom, especially Instagram, which encourages people to post current adventures, the more dramatic and outrageous the better. The heli blitz began in July, when New York was mostly locked down, but New Jersey somehow wasn’t. Still, many New Jerseyans had plenty of free time since far fewer people than usual were working or going to school. Some took to the skies—New York City skies.

They took helicopter rides over New York City as entertainment, especially easy to do from local heliports—Kearny, Linden, Newark, Teterboro and dozens more—and unusually cheap, because the heli companies have been offering bargain rates of $99 per ride and up. They also offer an array of 60%-off packages, encouraging tourists to take multiple flights and get their photos of New York City landmarks just right. Give the gift of flight, says FlyNYON:

“Holiday Deals Are Back at FlyNYON!
Get Ready to Fly Over New York City image1
Take the Perfect Shoe Selfie With a Doors-Off Flight Over Manhattan!” 

NYC’s Own Heliports Are Not the Current Culprits
New York City-based tour flights can only originate at the Downtown Heliport. The other two city-owned heliports ban tours. That’s not to say their flights are not annoying, but their flights are not the relentless tours over landmarks. Over 96% of East 34th Street’s flights, for example, are categorized as air taxi. 

Flights from the East 34th Street Heliport, directly across from both the Langone Medical Center and densely populated East Side residential blocks, were an early source of controversy so ferocious that Mayor Giuliani’s administration actually tried to appease neighbors by specifically imposing a mandatory 47% reduction in flights and banning heavy Sikorskys from sightseeing flights. But Giuliani was blocked by then-District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who in 1997 permanently enjoined the city from regulating routes or banning flights. A federal appellate court subsequently allowed the city to restrict operations somewhat, but the lesson was clear: A locality, even a city of New York’s wealth and size, is the lesser power than the federal government when it comes to control of air traffic—which is one reason the FAA’s participation in Borough President Brewer’s task force is imperative.

Still, the pandemic has forced a reduction in flights that activists, ironically, were never able to achieve. As New York City Economic Development Corporation data obtained by the Manhattan Borough President show, flights in 2020 have been greatly decreased from 2019. In August 2020, the last month for which data are available, only 224 flights left East 34th Street, as opposed to ten times as many, 2,472, in 2019.

The heliport is closed weekends, which means no commuter flights from the Hamptons.


The Hudson River Park West 30th Street Heliport wasn’t even supposed to be there. The 1998 act establishing the park barred all sightseeing flights from taking off or landing within its boundaries and prohibited any heliport from operating on park land. But a series of compromises between the city and the Trust effectively sited a heliport on park land. This matter could always be re-visited, though the creation of the huge Hudson Yards development to the immediate north produced a whole new set of potential helicopter-commuting customers, who especially like the huge Sikorskys that thunder across Queens and Manhattan at 1,000 feet, to and from the Hamptons, or up and down the Hudson River. Like 34th Street, West 30th flights have decreased by more than half—In October 2020 they had 403 flights versus 1,013 in October 2019.


Which brings us to the Downtown Heliport, the only one in New York City permitting tours. From a helicopter pilot’s point of view, downtown is a splendid location, with many of New York’s riches right at hand—the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn waterfront, Chelsea, downtown Manhattan including Ground Zero, and so much more. But from a residential point of view, the helicopters are abysmally located, leaving their engines running while on the ground and producing deafening noise when taking off and landing.

Still, like the other two city-owned heliports, Downtown’s traffic is down substantially, with 162 flights (88 tour, 74 non-tour) in September of this year, and 144 flights (77 tour and 67 non-tour) in August, versus 1,891 tour flights in September of last year and 2,470 in August.

For the most part, New York’s heliports adhere to a 2016 agreement, by which helicopter companies based at the Downtown Heliport agreed to (1) avoid flying over land, (2) not fly on Sunday, (3) ban flights over Governors Island, and (4) turn around before the George Washington Bridge when flying up the Hudson. Every single one of these principles is regularly ignored by the tourist flights from New Jersey and, increasingly, Westchester County and Poughkeepsie. They all fly over land, Sunday is their big day, and they hover over landmarks—all of which put the few flights from New York’s heliports at a competitive disadvantage.

One oddity in all of this: the out-of-town tourist helicopters are, astonishingly enough, promoted by New York’s taxpayer-supported NYC & Company, which apparently believes they are part of what it calls hyperlocal tourism. As part of the promotion, the Empire State Building offers its tourists FlyNYON discounts to see the ESB from a helicopter. The Wall Street Journal recently approvingly cited Wings Air Helicopters, which it called “a flight service that typically drew 60-65% of its business from international visitors, is catering to locals with 12-minute sightseeing rides out of Westchester Airport for $90 a person.” It’s hard to make the intellectual leap from out-of-town helicopter flights to benefits for New York’s tourism industry, yet NYC & Company lists dozens.

When Is a Commuter Flight not a Commuter Flight?
Because the FAA classifies commuter flights as essential, anti-helicopter activists in New York City have generally avoided taking on this category of flight. Yet not all flights self-categorized as commuter are truly commuter and those that are tend to fly the lowest and the noisiest—sounding like low-flying diesel trucks—over residential neighborhoods. 

The flight apps show that a few rogue helicopter pilots who primarily fly commuter planes sometimes book tourist flights from both West Side and East Side heliports. So far the Economic Development Corporation, the heliport landlord, has not commented, but the matter of EDC oversight should be high on Borough President Brewer’s agenda: Who audits what helicopters are doing, where, and when? At the moment, the answer is no one.

Not only are there no audits telling New Yorkers who’s flying, we have no way of knowing why they’re flying—tourist joyride, essential commute, or, importantly, human organ transplant missions. A Bell helicopter, N39CL, emblazoned with the Blade logo, for example, recently flew from Teterboro across Manhattan at 800 feet, down the East River at 400 feet, over to Newark at 900 feet, and onto Linden where it landed—after what looked like a 30-minute jaunt around Manhattan. Will Heyburn, Blade’s Head of Corporate Development, said that far from being a jaunt, N39CL was delivering a human organ, a liver, picked up at Teterboro and delivered to NYU Langone on 34th Street. “This helicopter is used almost exclusively on organ transplant missions,” said Heyburn, “a very rapid service that was unavailable in New York before Blade. You have four hours max to deliver a heart, for example, and you really can’t do that on roads.”

Still, Blade’s logo does appear on tourist flights made by other companies, such as Zip. A private helicopter and seaplane service that prides itself on being a good corporate citizen, Blade responds when challenged that flights with its logo are not necessarily theirs, writing me: “Our largest concern in the industry are the FlyNYON doors-off flights above and around Manhattan buildings. None of the operator companies that we do business with conduct any over-Manhattan tours. Their operations are over water and around the island.” Yet heli companies like Zip take advantage of the loose oversight to fly questionable routes that are indeed over land, including Central Park.

This is good news and bad: good, because Blade and its very articulate CEO Rob Wiesenthal should be natural allies of Brewer’s task force, but bad, because this simply reinforces what we already know—anyone can fly above us at any time, unobstructed by regulatory agencies or even a corporation whose name is on their plane.

Embedded in all of this is another reason for policy-makers to pay attention to commuter flights: the growth of what Wiesenthal calls “synthetic suburbs,” in areas like the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley not normally accessible for daily trips to the city—but accessible via Wiesenthal’s helicopters.

Can Brewer Succeed?
Brewer has taken on a very tough assignment in which her legal authority is limited even as the grievances of her constituents become ever larger and more persistent. At the moment, hers is the only serious effort to address an increasingly contentious problem. And while a single company, FlyNYON, is responsible for most of the egregious flights, they have recently been joined by others: HelifFlight out of Linden, which offers Groupon discounts, and WingsAir from Westchester County Airport. Both book late-night tours.

The FAA itself warns that “even experienced pilots can miss something as big as a mountain at night,” especially when flying under Visual Flight Rules. Yet night flights have become a constant in New York’s pandemic age, as helicopter companies and pilots push the outer limits of good sense, circling famous skyscrapers at night recklessly.

Can they be stopped? All New Yorkers should be watching Brewer’s efforts carefully.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a long-time editor and writer on cities. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Note: this column has been updated with additional information and comment from Blade.

Can the Manhattan Borough President Stop the Chop? Wed, 25 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Borough President Gale Brewer on Manhattan's Future gale brw bp600

Manhattan BP Gale Brewer (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

September 30, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Borough President Gale Brewer on Manhattan's Future & More

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joined the show to discuss her borough's future, housing and homelessness, 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

Max & Murphy · Episode 252: Borough President Gale Brewer On Manhattan's Future And More

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Borough President Gale Brewer on Manhattan's Future Wed, 30 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
With 5 Candidates Declared, 2021 Manhattan Borough President Race Has Begun demo bp3

(L-R) Mark Levine, Elizabeth Caputo, Brad Hoylman, Kimberly Watkins, Ben Kallos

As 2021 creeps closer, so does the most consequential municipal election in possibly decades, one that will decide the entire political roster that represents the city with few incumbents eligible to run for their current seats due to term limits. In overwhelmingly Democratic New York, the Democratic Party primary in June is all but certain to determine the winner of almost every seat. In Manhattan, nearly half of the borough’s 1.6 million registered voters are Democrats, more than seven times the number of Republicans, and five Democratic candidates have already lined up to pursue the nomination to become the next Borough President.

Borough presidents don’t have nearly the same amount of power that they enjoyed decades ago but they play a crucial role in the city’s political pecking order. Their most prominent role is the voice they add to land use and development decisions, even if it is an advisory one. They can sponsor legislation in partnership with City Council members. They allocate millions in capital budget dollars for infrastructure. They appoint members to community boards, to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, the City Planning Commission, and local Community Education Councils. They have a great deal of leeway to pursue pet projects and priority issues, and their impact is limited by how effectively they can use their bully pulpit.

The five Democrats running for Manhattan Borough President include City Council Members Mark Levine and Ben Kallos; State Senator Brad Hoylman; Kim Watkins, president of Community Education Council 3; and Elizabeth Caputo, former Manhattan Community Board 7 chair. Three of the five, save Kallos and Watkins, are based on the west side of the borough. Kallos is an Upper East Side resident and Watkins lives in Harlem. Notably, all five are white though the borough’s population is 47.2% white, 17.8% Black, 17.4% Hispanic, and 12.8% Asian, according to U.S. Census data as of July 1, 2019.

As of February 21, there were 832,312 registered Democrats in Manhattan and only 109,269 registered Republicans. There were also 227,729 party-unaffiliated registered voters, often called independents. Democrats have held the position of Manhattan Borough President for many decades. There are no Republican candidates as of now.

The next borough president will have big shoes to fill. Current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who is term-limited, is a famously popular veteran of city government, known for her ubiquitous presence around the borough. During her tenure, she’s built a reputation for embracing community concerns and opposing real estate developers, a powerful political force that is increasingly falling out of favor among Democrats. Brewer has been focused on civic technology, internet access, and small businesses, among other issues.

Among the five candidates vying to replace her, Levine and Kallos have been out in front of the field, having spent much of the last year building their campaigns and raising funds. Watkins, Caputo, and Hoylman, who is the most recent entrant to the race, are still getting their campaigns off the ground, though the city’s public matching funds program will likely help all of them gain solid footing, particularly Watkins and Caputo, who are both first-time candidates (for paid, full-time government positions, that is). The 2021 city elections will also be the first with ranked-choice voting in place for special and party primary elections, and the Democratic candidates will have to garner support in the varying constituencies across the borough. As elected officials, Levine, Kallos, and Hoylman likely have name-recognition advantages, but they too will have to show they can appeal to voters outside their current districts. Caputo has been a civic leader in the vote-rich Upper West Side, while Watkins is a Harlem resident who has also been extremely active in her surrounding community.

The candidates all face one common challenge, the crises facing the city that will be front-and-center in all of the dozens of city government elections taking place next year. The city is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and its effects will be felt well into 2021, and beyond. Though it was not as decimated as other boroughs, Manhattan has experienced its share of death and illness. More than 1 million New Yorkers lost their jobs, many based in Manhattan. The borough’s office buildings emptied, wealthier residents left the city in droves, many businesses went under, especially those relying on commuters and tourists.

The next borough president will have to offer a unifying vision for the borough that speaks to its specific neighborhoods and can address the many current crises as well as long-standing issues, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In interviews with Gotham Gazette just ahead of their first debate, scheduled for September 17, each of the five declared candidates offered their campaign pitch and the path forward that they envision for the borough. They addressed the major problems – struggling small businesses, a lack of affordable housing, school segregation, among others – and how they would approach issues around real estate development and local opposition to siting municipal facilities like homeless shelters. While some offered concrete ideas and potential solutions, others shared vague values statements.

Elizabeth Caputo: “I really look at what's happening now in our city and in our borough as a time for qualified new leadership.”
Caputo has not been in elected office in the 25 years that she’s called the Upper West Side her home. But she sees that as a strength, not a weakness as she seeks the borough president seat. 

Caputo does have experience with national politics, local governance, community leadership, and representing constituents: she previously served as chair of Manhattan Community Board 7, where she created a public housing task force to help NYCHA residents in the district, among other accomplishments she’s touting in her early borough president campaign.

She has worked for the last six years on U.S. government engagement for the World Economic Forum and also chaired Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, a progressive political organization. Prior to that, she was vice president of infrastructure and municipal capital markets at the investment and financial firm Morgan Stanley. “The one continuous thread that I have had throughout all of my careers that have really bridged public and private and global and local has been an ability to bring Manhattan communities together,” she said. “And so I really look at what's happening now in our city and in our borough as a time for qualified new leadership.”

Her work with the WEF has put her in a position to work on the types of issues that a borough president would have to handle such as municipal finance and local infrastructure projects, she said. “I feel very strongly that this is an executive position, not a legislative one, and that it's very important to have people who understand how to run things and know how to get things done,” Caputo said.

She said voters are tired of career politicians who have overseen the very worsening issues like unaffordability that they say they want to tackle. And the next borough president, she insisted, needs to have a long-term vision. “The pandemic is not something that's going to be going away, and it's not going to be going away in June, and it's not gonna be going away whenever the new borough president, whenever she gets elected,” she said. “It's going to be a job that requires somebody who can have a roadmap and a plan for the next decade or two decades.”

Her top priorities are “responsible and equitable development, education, and mass transit,” and she promised that she would release detailed plans on each in the coming weeks as her campaign picks up. “I spent a lot of my time at the World Economic Forum thinking about new forms of mobility, new forms of the future of work, how people are working and living, and also how to minimize what is a very growing divide between the haves and the have nots,” she said.

Caputo repeatedly emphasized her collaborative approach, both on the community board and in her private sector experience, which she said would be necessary when confronting local issues like the Upper West Side homeless hotel controversy. “I think the key is to have a responsible, even-keeled leader who can go in and talk to all the parties at the table, treat them fairly,” she said. “Even if you personally don't agree with them, treat them fairly to try to come up with a solution.”

Unlike other candidates, she didn’t commit to any voluntary restrictions on her fundraising, though she insisted she will not be swayed by her donors. “I'm not prepared to answer that question right now,” she said, when asked if she would reject real estate donations in particular. “Nobody is going to be influencing my decisions...I will not be influenced by any group, whether it's a lobbying group or developer or quite frankly, a number of lobbying organizations that do give money and endorse candidates, I'm going to be my own person. And I'm going to vote my conscience on things,” she said. She insisted that she is “not a pro-development candidate by any means” but said the job of borough president would require working with every industry for the betterment of the borough.

Brad Hoylman: “A Marshall Plan for Manhattan.”
Senator Hoylman recently won the Democratic primary for reelection to the 27th State Senate District, which covers the West Village, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Stuytown-Peter Cooper Village, and a big swathe of Midtown Manhattan.

In office since 2013, when he replaced State Senator Tom Duane, Hoylman has had a productive career in the state Legislature. He chairs the judiciary committee and has passed 79 bills including several significant pieces of legislation such as the Child Victims Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a ban on conversion therapy for minors, the repeal of a religious exemption for vaccinations, the Police STAT Act, and the TRUST Act to allow Congressional committees to request President Donald Trump’s state tax returns. Before serving in the Senate, Hoylman was general counsel to the Partnership for New York City, a group that represents the interests of the city’s biggest businesses.

If elected, Hoylman would become the first openly gay borough president in the city, and is currently the only openly gay member of the state Senate. 

He painted a grim picture of what could happen to Manhattan in the coming months and years, even as he pushed back against the doomsayers who claim that New York is beyond saving. “Unless we act now, we could see our borough become, at one end of the spectrum, a hollowed-out shell reminiscent of the 1970s. At the other end, a playground for the rich,” he said as he pointed to local businesses shuttering, homelessness increasing, and residents increasingly worrying about being able to afford their rent. “It's hard to believe but the question is actually being asked, ‘Does the city have a future?’ And the answer has to be ‘yes,’” he said.

He wants to push for a solution that resembles “a Marshall Plan for Manhattan,” he said, referring to the post-World War II foreign aid that the U.S. provided to western Europe. “We need to rebuild our communities in a way that's fair and smart and recognizes the disparate needs and challenges of say Washington Heights versus Midtown Manhattan,” he said, calling the borough president’s office “fundamentally an office of planning.”

Hoylman sees the recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past. The post-9/11 boom in construction, he noted, did not address the need for affordability in the borough. “With this enormous challenge of the pandemic and the worldwide recession which we're undergoing, there's a new moment to meet the affordability question in the borough,” he said. “But it's going to require a borough president who stands up to a lot of powerful forces.”

He’s done just that “since day one in the Senate,” he said, citing his legislative battles against “the real estate lobby, big tobacco, the NRA, anti-vaxxers, and even Donald Trump over his taxes.” He said he intends to develop a formal “Manhattan Marshall Plan” that will center affordability while encouraging development.

Even as he pursues a large-scale vision, he won’t ignore the minutiae of the borough president’s office, Hoylman said. He plans to create a task force on city services and quality of life to address everything from trash pick-ups to snow removal. “In the midst of what I consider to be the verge of a humanitarian crisis and rising rates of crime, the borough president can use this office as a platform to call for action,” he said. He’s also pledging to establish an advocacy resource center to help parents navigate the public school enrollment process.

A major change Hoylman is proposing is to democratize the capital dollars available to the borough president by instituting “community board budgeting” somewhat akin to the City Council’s participatory budgeting program. He wants to delegate the funds to community boards and let them decide how to use them locally. “We have the perfect vehicle in our local community boards, who are the eyes and ears of our communities...and are experts on what we need to see as a city,” he said. 

As with Kallos, Hoylman is also seeking to emulate Brewer’s leadership of the office, and touted the many occasions when he’s worked with her on various planning efforts. Like Brewer, he is also opposed to “self-defeating” term limits for community board members (Hoylman opposes term limits for all elected offices, in fact, save for the president).

Hoylman echoed a similar sentiment about the homeless hotel controversy on the Upper West Side. “The lack of notice and specific project planning shared with the local community was unacceptable,” he said. The local backlash could have been avoided, he insisted, if the de Blasio administration had better communicated its plans. 

“If you have an idea, and can build a coalition of support, the sky's the limit,” he said.

Ben Kallos: “I’m a student of Gale Brewer and I want to continue her legacy.”
Council Member Kallos is a two-term Democrat representing a district on the east side of Manhattan including much of the Upper East Side, Roosevelt Island, Midtown East, Sutton Place, and part of East Harlem.

Kallos has been a reform-minded activist, aide, and now elected official with a focus on improving how government functions, including a heavy emphasis on campaign finance reform. Currently, he’s the chair of the Council’s Committee on Contracts and has used the position to call out waste in city procurement. From 2014 to 2017, he chaired the Committee on Governmental Operations and successfully championed improvements to the city’s campaign finance law and elections administration among a slew of transparency and accountability measures.

A lawyer by training, he previously served as statewide coordination committee chair for the New York Democratic Lawyers Council and was chief of staff to Assemblymember Jonathan Bing, before becoming executive director of the New Roosevelt Initiative, a government reform political committee.

Over his time in office, Kallos has built strong relationships with labor unions and nearly 50 unions or union chapters have endorsed his campaign for borough president, though the list does not include any of the biggest unions in the city. He also has the backing of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a prominent Manhattan Democrat whose district overlaps with his, and former Public Advocate Mark Green.

Kallos prides himself on having won office in 2013 while refusing campaign contributions from real estate developers, lobbyists, and corporate donors, before such pledges became en vogue among Democrats. It’s also why he believes he’ll have a stronger voice in land use issues as borough president. “I've been dedicated to big structural change that would change the incentives for elected officials and how they governed,” he said. “And the biggest power that the borough president has by far is land use power.”

He worked closely with Brewer and activists to pass a community-led rezoning that prevented super-tall buildings from being constructed in Sutton Place, on the east side between 53rd and 59th Streets, in his district. He also touted his successful effort to lead a borough-wide coalition to limit the use of mechanical voids to increase building heights.

He touted various accomplishments as a Council member, many of them part of citywide or state initiatives, including securing nearly 2,000 pre-kindergarten seats for his district; bringing in Citi Bike, new ferry sites and select bus service lines; the launch of the Second Avenue subway; and $275 million for the crumbling East River esplanade. “I can do it because I've done it in my district,” he said of borough leadership.

“I think a lot of folks are talking about some of the problems our city is having but these aren't new problems. And these are all things I've been kind of single-mindedly focused on trying to fix,” he said, though he didn't offer any particular new goals.

Kallos believes he’s the candidate who is most closely aligned with how Brewer has run the office, and wants to be as omnipresent as she has been in her tenure. “I am a student of Gale Brewer and I want to continue her legacy, which is going to be very hard to do,” he said. “The biggest part of the job is going to be showing up. No one shows up more than Gale Brewer.”

He’s also shown a willingness to confront the types of issues that were raised on the Upper West Side around sheltering homeless people in hotels. In 2016, he created the Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services to help the chronically homeless. During the pandemic, at least 200 people experiencing homelessness were sheltered in a hotel in his district, Kallos said, explaining that he worked with local community leaders and service providers to proactively address the quality-of-life issues that arose and resolved them.

Kallos was one of the few City Council members who voted against the recently-approved $88.2 billion city budget, because it did not make more extensive funding cuts to the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget. The budget vote came in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and police reform activists wanted to see as much as $1 billion cut from the police department. “I think this is going to be a key issue in this race and I think it will be disqualifying for candidates who haven’t been willing to say ‘Defund the NYPD’ and aren't willing to do it,” he said, in a thinly-veiled reference to Levine’s vote in favor of the budget, which included hundreds of millions of dollars in projected cuts and cost shifts from the NYPD. Kallos also returned campaign donations to police unions and vowed to never accept them again.

He did note that he had one area of disagreement with Brewer. When community board term limits were proposed as a ballot referendum last year, Brewer opposed them while Kallos was in support of the measure, which voters passed overwhelmingly. He has taken a particular interest in making sure that the community boards in his district are diverse and have the resources they need to perform their work, he said. “I give discretionary funds from my office to pay for urban planners for the community boards so that they can take on developers,” he said.

He also cited an oft-unused city charter-given power of the borough presidents to monitor how contracts for services are fulfilled. The borough president can call a hearing of a contract performance panel, if they choose. “The borough president has a unique role when it comes to delivery of services through contracts or through agencies to make sure they do better,” Kallos said. “And I think that's just the tip of the iceberg.”

Mark Levine: “My entire career has prepared me for this moment.”
City Council Member Levine is in his second and final term representing a district in northern Manhattan that stretches from the Upper West Side through West Harlem to Hamilton Heights. For the past three years, he has served as chair of the Council’s health committee, a role that thrust him into the spotlight amid the coronavirus outbreak, and as chair of the parks committee before that. After his first term, he launched a substantial campaign to become the City Council Speaker, ultimately finishing what was essentially second to the victor, Corey Johnson.

Prior to the Council, he was a bilingual math and science teacher in the South Bronx and founded a community development credit union. He was also a community board member.

“We are going to need to rally as a city. We're going to need to act boldly so that we can rebuild in a way which is smarter, healthier, and fairer than before. And my entire career has prepared me for this moment,” he said.

He touted many achievements as a Council member, including the approval of hundreds of units of deeply affordable housing in his district, creating a new historic district in Morningside Heights that preserved 115 buildings in perpetuity, and major capital improvements to parks, schools and libraries. His work has already earned him the endorsement of about a dozen district leaders, Assemblymember Al Taylor, and fellow Council Member Margaret Chin.

Levine’s most prominent and likely most impactful accomplishment has been passing legislation that created a right to counsel for most low-income tenants in housing court, which has led to a massive drop in evictions. More recently, serving as health committee chair during the pandemic has helped bolster Levine’s profile, at times to the national stage; it earned him a profile in the Washington Post that proclaimed him the “Anthony Fauci of the New York City Council’ despite his lack of a background in medicine and occasional public missteps. When the state went into lockdown, Levine became known for an active social media presence, sharing key information and pushing the de Blasio, Cuomo, and Trump administrations.

Building off that, Levine said he would place public health equity at the center of his borough president campaign, having seen the disparate impact that the pandemic has had across the city, particularly for communities of color. “The profound inequality of this borough has been exacerbated by this crisis, but this crisis also gives us an opportunity to fix some of the systems that have led to that inequality,” he said of health care, housing and more. He argued the city should double down on affordable housing development, particularly by acquiring new properties using a community land trust model as prices drop.

Levine’s priorities are each informed by the pandemic. He noted, for instance, how it has highlighted the need for expanding public space. “I think we need to bring about a golden age of public space, of open space,” he said. He said that the next borough president will have to make mass transit a top priority, as the MTA faces a deep budget hole and commuters turn to cars, which may inundate the city and worsen traffic and pollution. Levine said it is essential to “find a way to get people out of private cars and into mass transit and other alternative forms of transportation, whether it’s walking, bicycling, or other environmental transportation.”

“The job of the Manhattan borough president is to use every lever of the office to fight for the people who actually live in this borough,” he said. “To put their needs above those for whom Manhattan is just a place to work or play or visit. People who live here understand that this is actually a borough of neighborhoods. It's 100 small towns, and the job of this office is to ensure that every one of those towns, those neighborhoods, is healthy and equitable, vibrant and livable.”

Ultimately, he said, the borough president’s office provides a platform for organizing voices across the borough, whether its local nonprofits, community boards, or community education councils, “so that the agenda of the borough president simply can't be ignored.” He cited his successful advocacy for the tenants counsel legislation, which required a multi-year organizing campaign that he put forth with co-sponsor Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, other Council members, and advocates. “That's my model for using this office as an organizing vehicle,” he said.

It’s also what he said he would have done in the case of the Upper West Side hotel that has recently been at the center of a political furor over homeless individuals being housed there. “There's a right way and wrong way to set up new facilities and there has to be more consultation with local communities,” Levine said, insisting that the de Blasio administration’s approach was flawed. He cited his own fight for expanding a homeless shelter and building supportive housing on 108th Street, which he said required partnering with the neighborhoods around the project and convincing residents of the necessity of the facility. “In the end, even those who didn't support the project came to understand its importance,” he said.

One of the major issues that Levine said the borough faces is the decline of small businesses and the struggles imposed by the pandemic. He has proposed creating a municipal bank that can finance community economic development projects, small businesses, green technologies, community land trusts and worker-owned cooperatives. “I'm going to make Manhattan the world leader in community development finance in a way that will offer a lifeline to struggling small businesses,” he said. 

He’s also promised to use the office to promote viable alternatives to public safety that do not involve the police. “It's got to start with investments in social services and youth development and anti-poverty programs, but we also have an obligation to call out injustice in policing and ensure that policing does not disproportionately target Black and brown communities as it too often has,” he said.

Kimbrely Watkins: “I feel like we're running out of time to change direction in terms of how the government operates and does its business.”
Watkins said she was inspired to join Community Education Council 3 on the Upper West Side six years ago after seeing how badly segregated schools were in the district. As CEC president, she led the effort to remove school zoning lines to improve diversity across schools, which proved to be a controversial and hard-fought endeavor.

“I'm running a school leader in District 3, I've had a front row seat to the dysfunction in our government,” she said, “and I feel like we're running out of time to change direction in terms of how the government operates and does its business.” 

That experience particularly disillusioned her about the city’s failures, as she saw elected officials rejecting an effort meant to desegregate schools. Even the mayor was poised to cave to the opposition. “We had to shame the politicians...The only way that we got it through was was to drag it into the public eye via the New York Times, essentially,” she said.

“COVID-19 has magnified that dysfunction,” she added.

Watkins emphasized the need for “governmental responsibility and fiscal responsibility” as she criticized decision making in the city from the mayor down to the local level, driven by political winds and special interests rather than based on logic or data. “What we need now is a changemaker,” she said. “We need to redefine what we get in a borough president and that is someone who's going to buck the mayor, someone who's going to push at the local level...smaller grassroots and ground activity.”

The city’s response to the pandemic, she said, “is a great example of how utterly in the toilet the current government is.” Despite early warnings about COVID-19, city officials continued to urge New Yorkers to go about their daily lives without taking special precautions until the middle of March, by which time the virus had spread well across the city.

She was particularly incensed about the wasteful and inefficient practices that she said end up costing taxpayer money and she would raise alarms about as borough president. She cited the shortage of school nurses, an issue that CEC 3 has raised in the past and which has now forced the city to rely on more costly, commercial firms to fill the gap as schools plan their reopenings. And she pointed to the Department of Education’s faulty screening processes for special education services. “We don't do a good job at the DOE in terms of screening students, particularly low-income Black and brown students, for the services that they need in special education. And therefore, families have to sue in order to get what they need, which again fleeces the taxpayer,” she said.

Referencing the recent city budget battle over NYPD funding, she again called for reining in excessive spending. “Taxpayers should call bullshit on that talking point because we did not defund the NYPD. We didn't do anything with the NYPD,” she said. Having previously been an auxiliary police officer, she said she personally understands the need for policing in communities. But, she said that the police department “should not be a military operation.” “We can provide, and we should provide a level of government service in communities of color that have traditionally been over-policed and have a functioning police department in those same communities,” she said.

One of the chief challenges the next borough president will have to manage is boosting the struggling small businesses in the borough. As someone who has run a small business herself, Watkins said she’s seen firsthand the types of bureaucratic hurdles that business owners need to jump through. “I'm a big believer in working with our entire city operation to figure out a way to create a catalyst for reigniting our main street New York,” she said.

In the ‘90s, Watkins was director at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s New York Race for the Cure. In the 2000s, she taught at an upstart program called Manhattan GMAT, where she eventually became senior director of marketing and student services but was eventually pushed out in 2007 by the company president, future presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whom Watkins said was sexist and biased against her for having gotten married (allegations Yang denied on the campaign trail this year). Watkins currently runs inSHAPE Fitness, her own company, working as a part-time private trainer and as a marathon coach for New York Road Runners Club.

Watkins also wants to encourage policies that promote home-ownership rather than just creating affordable rental housing. “We don't create any intergenerational wealth within our housing structure,” she said. “The people that buy apartments in New York City are rich and white, and mostly male and that has to stop. We need more [Housing Development Fund Corporations], more Mitchell-Lamas. We need more opportunities for ownership.” Watkins herself is an owner in an HDFC, a type of co-operative housing that is meant to be permanently affordable. 

On the homeless hotel controversy, though she criticized the “secret process” used by the de Blasio administration, she did say there was “a legitimate concern” about increasing crime and quality of life issues. “Had a trustworthy mayor been in an office and had the borough president, City Council member, or the state elected officials been informed, I think they probably would have buffered the consequences on the ground in a way that allowed residents to feel more comfortable,” she said.

The five Democratic candidates for Manhattan Borough President will meet for a debate hosted by Arena and Empire State Indivisible on Thursday, September 17.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to note that Watkins lives in Harlem, not the Upper West Side.

With 5 Candidates Declared, 2021 Manhattan Borough President Race Has Begun Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections Misses Deadline for Planning Ranked-Choice Voting Implementation voting in new york city ballot RCV story

Ranked-choice voting is coming soon (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Board of Elections missed a City Charter-mandated June 1 deadline to issue a report on how it will implement the new voter-approved ranked-choice voting system in 2021, advocates and elected officials said Friday.

At a press conference hosted by good government group Common Cause New York, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the report is essential to adequately prepare for the new voting format next year and called on the Board of Elections (BOE) to release it immediately.

Ranked-choice voting, which will only apply to party primary and special elections for city government positions, allows voters to select multiple names on the ballot in order of preference rather than voting for a single candidate. If no candidate initially receives more than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and their ballots redistributed based on their voters’ second choices, and so on until one candidate has a majority.

Voters approved the measure in a referendum last November. It takes effect for elections beginning in 2021 and requires the BOE to submit a report to the Mayor and City Council Speaker "containing a plan for achieving timely implementation of ranked choice voting" by June 1 of this year.

Supporters of the reform say it will force candidates to try to appeal to a wider political base and eliminate the need for expensive run-off elections, which tend to have minimal turn out. But successful implementation will be challenging and significant voter education will be necessary, advocates and elected officials have repeatedly pointed out.

"The deadline is crucial in order to make sure that the Board can purchase the necessary upgrades to the existing voting machines for ranked-choice voting," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

New York City began using ballot-on-demand printers and electronic poll books on a large-scale as part of rolling out early voting last year. The technology purchased by city elections administrators is supposed to be compatible with a ranked-choice format but, along with optical ballot scanners, requires software upgrades that must be certified with the state elections board before 2021 elections.

That certification process usually takes around six months, Lerner said, and the first city elections of 2021 could be special elections early in the year, followed by the regularly-scheduled June primaries for dozens of seats across city government.

A spokesperson for the City Council confirmed it has not received a report. "The Council will not tolerate delayed implementation of ranked choice voting and we demand the BOE meet the deadlines every step of the way in this process," the spokesperson wrote in an email. The mayor's office did not respond to inquiries about the report.

Under the New York City Charter, if the board fails to submit the implementation report within 30 days of the deadline it will "create a rebuttable presumption that such board is declining to implement ranked choice voting as required by this section."

"Once again the barrier to democracy is our own board of elections because they dropped the ball again," said Stringer, who is running for mayor in 2021. "Someone should just get that report done now, so we don't have problems later on."

Next year will be the busiest city election cycle in at least eight years, with mayor, comptroller, four borough presidents, and dozens of City Council seats “open” due to term limits (meaning no incumbent is running). The public advocate, Queens borough president, and about 16 other Council seats are also up for election, though with incumbents likely running, and the city's Campaign Finance Board estimates roughly 500 candidates total will be seeking office in 2021.

There could be special elections called as early as March, depending on the outcome of ongoing 2020 races for Queens Borough President and Congressional District 15 in the Bronx, where current City Council members are frontrunners. A special election is called when an elected office is vacated mid-term.

Common Cause, along with Reinvent Albany, League of Women Voters of New York City, and Citizens Union, sent a letter Friday to BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan and his deputy, Dawn Sandow, urging them to release a report. "We acknowledge the additional burden of operating in this new environment, but as we've seen the NYC BOE adapt to the COVID crisis, we remain confident the Board is up to the task," the letter reads.

The BOE is frequently criticized for administrative blunders that lead to arduous experiences at the polls and in some cases disenfranchise voters. The risk increases when administrators are rolling out new and untried elements. An extreme example has been this month’s primaries, where pandemic-induced changes to the rules governing absentee voting meant an unprecedented number of voters sought the option. There have been widespread reports that many voters did not receive their ballots in the mail in time to cast them, as well as poll-site operation issues of the more perennial variety.

"There is no time to waste. We got to make sure that our candidates know the rules and that our voters are educated," Stringer said, noting that effort must begin with the implementation report.

"I know that we are in the middle of a cascade of crises," said Brewer, including the coronavirus pandemic, protests for racial justice, and a major economic downturn. "But equally important is voting and voting the way voters want to vote." The referendum establishing the new voting system was approved with nearly 75 percent of the vote but in an "off-year" election with relatively low turnout.

"I have to say to me it's frightening because what it says is, 'we are not ready,'" she said.

The BOE did not respond to requests for comment.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Board of Elections Misses Deadline for Planning Ranked-Choice Voting Implementation Fri, 26 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Fiscal Crisis is an Opportunity to Reimagine Failing Programs, Like Organics Recycling financial opp

Questions about recycling abound (photo: Michael Anton/Sanitation)

The May 13 op-ed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service, suffers from two major fallacies.

The authors begin their piece:

 “While is it is no secret that the city’s curbside organics collection program doesn’t pay for itself, that’s only half the story.  It is true that the program currently generates a small amount of revenue, about $50,000.  However, if properly executed, the program has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.”

The first fallacy once again raises the belief that a recycling-related program can one day generate sufficient revenues to significantly offset or eliminate the cost of its operation. Second, and perhaps more significant, is the belief that the organics collection program as currently conceived and executed should be further expanded.

To justify the above speculations the authors quote from an “analysis” performed by the Independent Budget Office estimating $22.5 million in possible future revenues from composting. This analysis is based upon an If, Then series of hypotheses untethered from current programmatic realities. The authors go on to further speculate that “realizing the increased revenue from organics recycling is dependent upon expansion.” 

In the midst of a pandemic and the resulting financial crisis, it is irresponsible for elected officials to call for the expansion of a program that is clearly not working. Successful recycling collection programs are evaluated on a number of factors. In the case of an organics collection program, these most critical factors are: 1) A program design that overcomes participants’ inherent revulsion to decaying organic waste; 2) Maintaining sustained and consistent levels of participation by the generator (container set-out). Without robust participation by all parties targeted by the program, neither collection nor processing can be efficient and sustainable; 3) The three basic means by which to drive participation: regular public education, tangible enforcement, and differential charging for refuse versus recycling services. The latter two options for increasing participation have typically been strongly opposed by most local elected officials and to date there has been very limited investment in the first option.

In recycling programs, participation drives all of the other operational factors like collection efficiency and the successful processing of what is ultimately collected.   There are many other challenges that can contribute to the success or failure of collection and processing but without sustained and adequate participation, organics programs fail. Based solely on the participation levels of the current organics program it is unsustainable and expansion is unjustified.

The authors next invoke the historical decision in 2002, following the recession brought about by the events of 9/11, to temporarily suspend the collection of plastics and glass as justification for why organics should not now be suspended. They argue that once restored in stages over the next two years following 2002, the recycling program never regained the same participation rates it experienced prior to this suspension. While it is true that the gross diversion rates of recyclables did not go back to the exact same levels as prior to 2002, there are a number of reasons for this change in diversion that are related to the suspension but unrelated to the speculations of the authors.

Chief among those was that post-suspension sanitation workers were better trained to no longer pick up what was essentially garbage in a recycling can or bag, but instead leave it for garbage collections.  The recycling diversion rate (simply the weight of what was formerly trash, diverted to collection by recycling trucks) was in fact higher prior to suspension but so was the post-collection residue rate -- the rate of what the processors had to throw out as non-recyclables (garbage) received along with recyclables.

What the recession following 9/11 allowed was for a suspension of business-as-usual thinking, both political and operational, which then provided an opportunity to redesign the metal, glass, and plastics collection and processing program.   

A little more history
Going back to the 1990s and the recession during the Dinkins administration, the city had decided to abandon investment in recycling processing infrastructure and to instead rely solely upon the private sector for the processing of recyclables. City contracts were based upon the lowest bid or lowest net cost to the Department of Sanitation for the processing of those recyclables; contracts that ultimately placed the entire risk of post-consumer commodity market price fluctuation upon the contractors.

While this arrangement worked for well over a decade, following 9/11 and the experience all New York City-contracted recyclers had shipping recyclables out of the Port of Newark for many months, those same recyclers decided it was time to assume far less of the risk associated with processing and marketing the city’s recyclables. In addition, when Sanitation released its rebid of the same processing in contracts in mid-2002 it decided in an unstable marketplace to reduce the risks to its contractors by assuming the market risk instead of the contractor, rather than sharing revenues the sanitation department would be the recipient of most of the revenues, both good and bad, and the contractor would bid a straight processing fee per ton, which would include the contractor’s overhead and profit.  

The market instability plus the new contract structure resulted in what appeared to many as far higher prices, when in fact the prices after revenue offsets would have likely been similar. However, in the rush for cost-cutting following 9/11, one of the proposed cuts by the then-commissioner was to eliminate the entire metal, glass, and plastics collection program.

After much back-and-forth between the administration and the City Council leading up to the 2002 fiscal year budget, a compromise was made to temporarily suspend the collection of plastics and glass while continuing to collect just metal under a straightforward revenue-only contract the recycling bureau had in place. The former metal, glass, and plastics collection program was then scheduled through political compromise, and memorialized into law, for full restoration approximately two years later. 

The previous history is invoked solely to illustrate the fact that the recession combined with the decision to temporarily suspend the metal, glass, and plastics collection program brought about an opportunity to rethink how to design the future processing and marketing of the metal, glass, and plastics recycling stream in New York City.

At the time the city already had long-term, 20-plus-year revenue contracts with private firms for the acceptance and processing of paper but lacked anything similar with metal, glass, and plastics. Because of the limited revenue-generating potential of the metal, glass, and plastics recycling stream, combined with the added cost of processing the same complex heterogeneous stream, unlike with paper, it was incumbent upon the city to make the needed investment to ensure the proper infrastructure to accept, process, and market the materials collected.

The political and operational rethinking provided by this opportunity resulted in the release by the recycling office of a request-for-proposals for a public-private partnership to process the city’s metal, glass, and plastics for the next 20-40 years on a piece of land provided by the city.

Without this opportunity, it is likely that the metal, glass, and plastics collection program, if it still existed, would have experienced many more ups and downs between 2004 and now, as it had since its inception. Instead of looking to expand an organics program that is currently purely voluntary and with a participation rate that dooms it to failure, it would be far better to use this opportunity to suspend the program and rethink all aspects of it to ensure that if and when it is restored, it is designed to succeed rather than fail.

Presently the organics program relies almost entirely upon a private-sector jury-rigged infrastructure for receiving, processing, and marketing the organics it collects.  An infrastructure like that used for originally processing the metal, glass, and plastics stream, designed for another purpose and a wholly different quality stream but modified to a limited degree to answer the current call and secure a contract.  

Times of crisis provide opportunities, if seized, to abandon conventional thinking and instead be creative. Rather than elected officials attempting to satisfy politically powerful constituencies such as the Natural Resources Defense Council by calling for restitution of a failing program, they should use the present crisis as an opportunity to call for the redesign of the program for operational success rather than political success. 

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City’s recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. He was a 2010 Alfred P. Sloan Public Service Award recipient, and retired from Sanitation in 2016.

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City Fiscal Crisis is an Opportunity to Reimagine Failing Programs, Like Organics Recycling Wed, 27 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service rec org mat

Organics collection (photo: NYC Department of Sanitation)

Among the businesses listed as essential in Governor Cuomo’s PAUSE order are "trash and recycling collection, processing, and disposal" industries. Yet on April 7, Mayor de Blasio followed a different interpretation by announcing that the Department of Sanitation’s organics recycling program would be eliminated on May 4. To do away with this critical environmental program just to save a miniscule percentage of the city’s budget doesn’t make sense, and here’s why:

While it is no secret that the city’s curbside organics collection program doesn’t pay for itself, that’s only half the story. It is true that the program currently generates a small amount of revenue, about $50,000. However, if properly executed, the program has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.

In a February 2019 study, "How Much Potential Revenue are New Yorkers Wasting by Trashing Organics?," the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that if all of the 1 million tons of food and yard waste generated by New Yorkers annually were recycled into compost, it could produce $12.5 million in revenue. If the same annual tonnage were recycled into biogas and used to generate electricity, the potential revenue could be as much as $22.5 million.

We can only realize the untapped financial potential of the organics program if enough New Yorkers separate their leftover pizza crusts and banana peels from their trash and into the city's brown bins. Cutting the program nixes the opportunity for that to happen and washes away years of gains in a single stroke. What the city should do is pursue an "expand to save" model, accomplishing multiple goals at once.

Realizing the increased revenue from organics recycling is dependent upon expansion. An investment in our organics program now will save money in the long run, all while helping our planet. It’s a win-win. 

Furthermore, history suggests that eliminating the program now means it will be that much harder to bounce back if it is ever restored. When the Bloomberg administration suspended plastics and glass recycling in 2002, in the midst of another recession, New Yorkers were recycling at a rate of about 20%. Recycling has never returned to the same level after it was brought back; the latest available data, from fiscal year 2019, shows an 18.1% recycling diversion rate citywide, a decade and a half after. Changing habits is hard.

Loss of New York City’s composting program would also have implications for the cleanliness of our city. This could mean an uptick in rats and other vermin. Currently, buildings that participate in the curbside organics collection program store their food scraps in rat-proof brown bins provided by the Department of Sanitation. Once brown bin collection stops, the same amount of organics will end up in garbage bags stacked on sidewalks, a ready feast for rats. To make matters worse, the mayor has also proposed eliminating fourth-day garbage collection in "Rat Zones." 

Ending the curbside collection of organics is short sighted and ill-advised. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish in a time when we desperately need to be thinking about how to build a resilient city. The health and longevity of our neighborhoods, city, and planet should be paramount, especially in times when tough decisions need to be made about our city’s budget and how the fiscal decisions we make today will impact our future.

The CORE Act, being introduced on Wednesday by City Council Members Keith Powers and Antonio Reynoso (a co-author here), would provide New Yorkers with places to drop off organics, electronics, textile, and other materials for recycling, as an interim measure until we restore and expand curbside collection of these streams to all New Yorkers. We know from recent history that the relatively little we save with a cut like this doesn’t justify the decades it will take to rebuild the good that it does for New Yorkers.

Gale Brewer is the 27th Borough President of Manhattan. City Council Member Antonio Reynoso represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management. On Twitter @galeabrewer & @CMReynoso34.

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New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service Tue, 12 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York’s Wrongly Open Skies open op

helicopters in Manhattan (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Helicopter crashes in the skies of New York City — two in 2019 —temporarily bring renewed attention to the odd situation by which hundreds of vehicles weighing up to 12,000 pounds each fly low every day over the country’s densest city, a city that was attacked from the air in 2001.

Precisely how many flights there are, by whom, and for what purpose are secrets kept by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees three heliports on behalf of their owner, New York City.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says that complaints about helicopter noise and pollution are constant, and have been for years. And even though we are all now subject to time-consuming and sometimes intrusive searches to board planes at airports, passengers and pilots on helicopters undergo only the most cursory security procedures.

The recent helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others occurred north of Los Angeles, on the other side of the country, yet the catastrophe holds several sobering parallels for New York.

Dangerous Terrain
Burdened with the nation’s busiest airspaces, both L.A. and New York City also have dangerous, sky-high terrain that helicopters must avoid. LA has mountains, New York has skyscrapers.

Bryant’s helicopter lacked a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS), as do many, perhaps most, helicopters flying over New York. Even though the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has long urged that warning systems be mandated, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the federal agency regulating helicopters, has resisted, saying that because helicopters fly so close to buildings a TAWS would produce too many false alarms. Both L.A. and New York are also subject to the thick marine layer and dense fog that were factors in the Bryant crash.

Frequent Commuting
Bryant was commuting by helicopter, a practice that is increasingly common in New York, and for the same set of reasons: clogged and unpleasant ground transportation.

As the LA Times noted recently, the customer base for heli-commuting “skews rich, famous and traffic-averse.” Private entrepreneurs have eagerly responded to demand. As Jeff Holden, Uber’s Chief Product Officer, said, “So far we’ve been focused on ground-based transportation, but then we asked ourselves: Why can’t we fly today? Why can’t we take to the air? It’s not a matter of if, but when,” which was July of last year.

And not just Uber. “There isn’t gridlock in the sky,” says Rob Wiesenthal, the founder and chief executive of Blade, the vanguard company flying luxurious helicopters to the airports, the Hamptons, and Nantucket told the Wall Street Journal. Voom CEO Clément Monnet claims to be improving “people’s lives by giving them access to the air.”

Lightly Regulated
The twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B, a familiar vehicle to sky-watching New Yorkers who can see the big white helis regularly power across Manhattan, is owned by charter company Island Express Helicopters. Like all L.A.-based charter companies, Island’s FAA operating certification limits its pilots to flying under visual flight rules, which require a half-mile of daytime visibility and the ability to see the ground. The company lacked certification for its pilots to fly with instruments, the system for operating in fog or clouds. But the FAA seldom penalizes this violation, letting helicopter companies operate on a self-regulatory basis.

And it’s worth remembering that the above factors were also central to New York’s June 10, 2019 horror when a helicopter burst into flames after smashing into the fog-shrouded roof of a 7th Avenue office building. That pilot was also not authorized to fly using only instruments. He shouldn’t have been flying at all in the rainstorm.

Worse, the helicopter company whose March 2018 doors-off flight crashed into the East River, killing five tourists, is still flying, unimpeded — unchallenged even — by federal regulators. A report by the National Transportation Safety Board in mid-December of this year placed the blame for the accident on the company, which had bypassed strict standards for sightseeing tours by falsely categorizing its flights as photographic in purpose, which has far looser regulations. And it had installed deficient harnesses, said the NTSB, that locked each tourist in place, pinning them helplessly as the helicopter turned over in the frigid water.

There’s a fundamental reason New Yorkers should be concerned about what’s happening in the skies of Los Angeles: like all American cities, neither L.A. nor New York controls its own skies. Skies are the purview of the federal government, which might in itself be OK, except that regarding helicopters and other low-flying aircraft the federal government has simultaneously asserted its authority and refused to regulate on any significant level. If any kind of serious reform — and that includes serious regulation — is to come to the helicopter industry it will have to begin in the big cities.

Yet despite a few rhetorical flourishes from Mayor Bill de Blasio denouncing commercial helicopter flights, City Hall has taken no recent steps to curtail flights.

Basically, anyone can fly through New York skies unless the federal government intervenes and says they can’t. But the federal government now and pretty much forever has been loath to restrict flights — even in the aftermath of 9/11. And even the city’s occasional attempts to control quality-of-life issues like noise and pollution have been restricted, originally by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 1997, when she was a district judge.

In National Helicopter v City of New York, she permanently enjoined the city from imposing a mandatory 47% reduction in helicopter operations at the East 34th Street Heliport, designating tourist sightseeing routes, excluding Sikorsky S-58Ts from sightseeing flights, and mandating that all helicopters be marked for identification. A federal appellate court subsequently allowed the city to restrict operations, but permitted the ban on markings to stand.

This alone is a huge issue, and one that Borough President Brewer has been fighting for years. Federal regulations require that helicopters be individually identified, but the city (and Brewer) wanted the identification to be visible, painted in large digits — much like NYPD patrol cars or MTA buses — so that New Yorkers would know what was flying above them, hovering over Shakespeare in the Park performances or racing up and down West End Avenue on Sunday mornings.

Are these flights for tourism? Corporate commuting? Paparazzo? Government? Media? Police and emergency? We can’t know. Central Park, so precious to New Yorkers as a peaceful haven, is to the FAA a helicopter corridor. The FAA’s Central Park Route runs from West 72nd Street to the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, thus the many complaints Brewer’s office receives from Upper West and Upper East Siders.

What’s to be done?
The simplest, most direct solution would be for the FAA to issue Temporary Flight Restrictions forbidding flights over New York City, as it has done for Disneyland, of all places. But this is unlikely to happen. The FAA is what political scientists call a “clientele agency,” meaning their main mission is to protect rather than regulate the clientele industry.

Led by Rep. Jerry Nadler, New York’s congressional delegation has repeatedly introduced legislation to ban nonessential flights over New York City, the most recent being the Helicopter Safety Act. But what is nonessential? The FAA has repeatedly ruled that any transportation use, including commuting, is valid, and under the bill helicopter flights deemed essential would still be allowed, including law enforcement, emergency response, disaster response, medical services, or “for the public interest,” which is undefined.

It’s possible that even if Nadler’s bill passes, New York will be left with tens of thousands of flights deemed essential.

Technology can help. Flight tracking services, like FlightRadar24, provide real-time data on thousands of flights around the world, but also in your neighborhood, telling you which aircraft models are flying, as well as their origin and destination. At peak hours, the FlightRadar24 map of Manhattan looks like it’s infested with insects, as the tiny helicopter emoji crowd one another all over the borough.

The app is not yet sophisticated enough to catch every flight, especially for the low-flying aircraft that especially distress New Yorkers. But you’ll often see helis on the app hovering over city parks, monuments, and waterfront areas where taxpayers have invested billions of dollars. As former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says, “Taxpayer investment in parks is being ruthlessly undermined by the ongoing blight of helicopter flights.”

The first step in reform is to get the information: how many flights, by whom, in what aircraft models, for what purpose? What are their routes? How low are they flying?

NYCEDC keeps some generic data, which it publishes reluctantly and rarely, on its three city-owned heliports. But no agency releases data on the thousands of flights coming in from outside New York City’s borders, mainly New Jersey and Long Island, but increasingly upstate New York and New England. And if the on-demand flight services get their way, soon there will be more flights from more distant points.

Government agencies refuse to release their data, but a citizens’ brigade of heli watchers, armed with flight tracking apps, could provide enough of the data to demonstrate the extent and precise geographic locations of the issues.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a writer and planner. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

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New York’s Wrongly Open Skies Tue, 11 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Getting in the Holiday Spirit of Improved Public Space mayorrockefeller

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

‘Tis the season for improving public spaces.

The 14th Street busway has been live for just over three weeks and the accolades are already enough to deem its opening as historic. New Yorkers are now seeking more innovative ideas to improve the pedestrian and commuter experience throughout the city. 

With the holiday season approaching, we are hopeful that this embrace of open space can be adopted in Midtown. 

Rockefeller Center is one of the centerpieces of Manhattan. Every year, the area sees close to 1 million pedestrians during the holidays. It’s the must-see destination for both New Yorkers and tourists, and one of the places where the city absolutely shines. 

But if you are looking anywhere other than the top of the tree, it’s a sea of people and cars competing to get a glimpse of the scene.

If we think of Rockefeller Center with a people-first mentality, we can make streets safer and enrich public space. That’s why we have called for the City to pedestrianize the historic plaza by closing 49th and 50th Streets from 5th Avenue to 6th Avenue for the holiday season. 

The current set up relies on blockades that take up large amounts of space and cause groups of pedestrians to crowd crosswalks and spill over into the street: a recipe for injuries. And each day, the parameters change. With a defined set-up, rules of the area would be more easily communicated and expectations clear. 

Ten years ago, Times Square took the jump to clear out cars. Five streets transformed into 110,000 square feet of pedestrian space. The successes of the Department of Transportation's endeavor are indisputable. Pedestrian injuries have decreased by 40% and vehicular crashes have decreased by 15% after the streets became a plaza. The number of individuals passing through increased, too: a boon to area businesses. 

Rockefeller Center is a 12-acre landmark in the middle of Manhattan, open to New Yorkers and visitors -- it is time we protect the space and everyone who visits, and encourage even more people to take part safely.

There is nothing like New York during the holidays. Let’s prepare for the celebration and those to come. The countdown is on.

Gale A. Brewer is the Borough President of Manhattan. Keith Powers is a City Council Member for Manhattan’s East Side, including the Rockefeller Center area. On Twitter @galeabrewer & @KeithPowersNYC.

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Getting in the Holiday Spirit of Improved Public Space Sun, 27 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000