Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


The Long Fight to End Homelessness

A landmark settlement. A critical report. Calls to action.

Photo Courtney Gross/Gotham Gazette

In the last months, homeless advocates and city officials have seen an array of steps forward - and back - in the fight to end homelessness.

One recent report identified an increase in the amount of homeless families in the city. It also solidified arguments that the Bloomberg administration was far from reaching its goal, put forth in 2004, of reducing the homeless population by two thirds in 2009. Just last week, the Bloomberg administration announced a landmark settlement in a 25-year-old lawsuit, releasing the city from court oversight of its shelter system, while simultaneously guaranteeing New York's families a right to shelter.

These recent developments have not answered the most fundamental questions: Is New York City doing enough to combat homelessness? And what more could - and should -- it do?

In 2004, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his ambitious five-year plan on homelessness, about 37,319 individuals lived in shelters or on the streets. Last week, according to estimates from the Department of Homeless Services, there were 34,299. That is a decrease of just over 8 percent - far from the mayor's laudable goal.

The mayor's figures in his recent Mayor's Management Report give a further indication of the difficulties his administration has had reducing homelessness. While slightly fewer people -- including single adults, adult families and children with families -- go to shelters on an average day, the number of families with children in the shelters has increased since the 2005 fiscal year and in 2008, reached 7,802 families a day.

With one year left to go in this administration, many say the mayor will likely fail to reduce homelessness like he pledged to do. Earlier this year, New York Magazine termed the fight to reduce homelessness as "the single biggest failure of the Bloomberg administration." While supporters see progress, almost no one denies that Bloomberg's efforts at fighting homelessness have fallen far short of his ambitious goals.

In our package of articles, several advocates and officials examine what went right - and wrong.

Getting Families Out of Shelters and Into Homes
by Patrick Markee and Mary Brosnahan

While this week's legal settlement was historic in that it enshrined the right to shelter for city families, New York must do far more to lower the homeless population, say the executive director and senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless.

Prevention is the Best Medicine
by Bill de Blasio

The chair of the City Council's General Welfare Committee suggests several ways to better combat homelessness, such as investing more funding in prevention.

On Track to Ending Homelessness
by George T. McDonald

The president and founder of the Doe Fund writes that no administration has been more innovative, forward-thinking and successful than Mayor Michael Bloomberg's at tackling the challenges of homelessness.

Handing out to the Homeless
by Courtney Gross

Gotham Gazette rides with a group of volunteers distributing meals to Lower Manhattan's homeless.

Fighting Homelessness in Miami
by Ronald Book and David Raymond

In the early 1990s, Miami was overrun with homelessness. Now, thanks to a one-cent tax on certain restaurant meals, the area has become a national model getting people off the streets and into housing and other programs.

( The city's Department of Homeless Services declined to contribute to this package. )


Cutting the High Cost of Housing

photo by mr 119th street
Photo (cc) Mr. 119th Street
Housing in New York is so expensive partly due to building expenses.

Even as the housing market falters in much of the nation, houses and apartments in New York City remain expensive. A relatively modest condominium in a prime neighborhood can go for more than a million dollars, making it difficult for many New Yorkers who do not have that kind of money to find a suitable home.

Why is housing so expensive in New York City? There are a number of reasons, but one, often overlooked, is that it costs so much more to build here than in other cities. Moreover, the difference has grown even more marked as the cost of residential construction has increased rapidly in the past five years. As documented in a recent study by economist Rosemary Scanlon, commissioned by the Manhattan Institute, rising costs, driven by steep increases in the costs of materials, land and labor, and the delays and resulting high costs of the local permitting and regulatory process, pose a serious threat to constructing housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

gotham gazette commentary

Since 2003, these costs have been rising as much as 1 percent each month, as global demand caused material prices to soar, while the city's boom in construction made it difficult to find skilled contractors and labor and pushed up land prices throughout the five boroughs.

The current scarcity of available capital further threatens continued construction of housing that is affordable to New York households. The year-long credit crunch has made it harder to get construction loans as well as individual mortgages. In addition, dramatic changes have been made to the city's 421-a tax abatement program for housing, and while the full impact remains to be seen, several developers of affordable housing have publicly expressed deep concerns over possible adverse effects.

Adding Up the Costs

Costs of building materials have been rising rapidly since 2003, driven by strong growth in Asia and other emerging economies around the globe. In New York City, the current boom in construction has contributed as well. Labor costs, which have long been higher in the city for the unionized trades, are being pushed up by strong demand and overtime, which has also strained the capacity of available contractors and subcontractors.

Construction of offices and hotels, along with condos and co-ops, has used much of the available land, driving up land prices in Manhattan's central core. But not just there. Land has grown in value in northern Manhattan and the other boroughs, particularly Brooklyn and the Bronx. For example, land in downtown Brooklyn that sold in the range of $70 per square foot in early 2005 was selling for around $250 per square foot by mid-2007. Citywide, increases in land prices are now the single most important factor in the cost of building housing.

New York's vast array of building codes, regulations and required permits also add a significant premium to construction costs. Navigating the system demands the expertise of highly specialized legal and architectural professionals.

New York's Unique Housing Market

The city's housing situation, both on the demand and supply side, remains an exception to patterns in many other cities and regions of the U.S., as prices still are increasing here and demand for housing remains intense.

Population growth since 2000 and the strong post-2003 economy have put additional pressure on New York's already scarce housing supply. The demand is reflected in the number of building permits issued for residential construction - up from levels of 15,000 units per year in 2000, 2001 and 2002, to 30,000 units per year in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Demand has pushed up prices for condominiums, co-ops and rentals in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Rents in stabilized buildings have continued to rise as well.

However, fewer building permits were issued in the early months of 2008. Some local experts contend this drop-off reflects heightened activity in 2007 by housing developers hurrying to file for permits before changes in the 421-a tax abatement program went into full effect this July 1. Data on building permit activity in the last months of the year will give a better indication of whether this cooling off is temporary, or a delayed response to national trends.

After a brief easing during 2007, some material costs are again increasing steeply. Prices for steel and steel products rose 15 percent nationwide from August 2007 to August 2008. The sharp increases in oil prices in the first half of 2008 drove up costs of transportation as well as petroleum products, including an increase of over 11 percent in the price of asphalt products.

These trends affecting the cost and price of housing come at a time when the inflation-adjusted incomes of most New Yorkers have failed to show real gains. The rise in local inflation - over 25 percent since 2000 - has been greater than the increase in median household incomes. And housing costs in the same years have risen even faster than the rate of inflation-on average by 33 percent. Thus New York's crisis in housing affordability is a function of available income as well as the cost of construction.

What Can Be Done?

Since national and international trends determine many of the cost components, it is necessary to focus on what City Hall and Albany can influence.

* Reduce delays in construction time, and thus cost, by streamlining the city's regulatory and permitting processes. Opportunities include processing and issuing permits in parallel rather than sequentially and improving inter-agency coordination (e.g. between Department of Buildings and the Department of Transportation). Many inefficiencies contribute nothing to the safety of workers and the public (and perhaps detract from it, in creating confusion) while adding time and expense to the process. Having related permits from buildings and transportation expire simultaneously with project insurance, for example, would reduce developer headaches and expense without changing safety requirements.

* Increase the supply of buildable land by continuing the Bloomberg administration's progress in rezoning old industrial land and upzoning areas that could support greater residential and commercial density. Areas near subway stations outside of Manhattan's central business district could support greater density. More land could also be made available for housing by changing the regulations that require housing developments outside central Manhattan to provide parking spaces on-site. Similarly, eliminating requirements for on-site garage space could save $30,000 to $50,000 for each space not built.

In addition, costs of building affordable housing can be held down by using non-union labor. Currently, some contractors use union labor and others use non-union; often there is a mix. Developers make project-by-project decisions about which way to go, as union labor in certain specialized fields is efficient enough on some projects to offset higher wages and generous benefits and work rules. But construction unions are now lobbying city and state lawmakers to require "prevailing" (i.e., union-equivalent) wages on housing built with public subsidies. To foster building for all price ranges and income levels, it is essential that the city and state keep the non-union option available, especially for affordable housing outside the Manhattan central business district.

High rates for liability insurance also add to the burden of building costs in New York City. One major reason is New York State's Scaffold Law, a century-old piece of legislation that imposes absolute liability on the builder or owner if a worker falls from a scaffold or bridge, regardless of whether that worker has been negligent. New York State is the only state in the nation that has not adopted the provision of comparative liability. This discourages new insurers from entering the New York market and keeps premiums up.

The shortage of affordable housing is a multi-faceted problem, and no silver bullet can solve it. But there are some things the city and state can to do to improve the situation, notably common-sense streamlining along with expansion of the supply of land, contractors and even insurance providers. The state and city governments need to take those actions now if New York City is going to continue to be home to people of all incomes, occupations and backgrounds.

Rosemary Scanlon is a consultant in urban and regional economics as well as an associate professor at the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate. Hope Cohen is deputy director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development.  

Rebuilding Ground Zero: Long-term Costs of Short-term Planning

photo by Joe Woolhead
Photo by Joe Woolhead, courtesy of WTC Documentary Arts Project

On the seventh anniversary of 9/11, the public hand-wringing about delays in the rebuilding effort offers yet the latest evidence that short-term thinking remains the standard operating procedure in government. Now Merrill Lynch has backed out of talks that would have make the firm an anchor tenant at the trade center site, again calling into question the development timetable.

The demands to produce speedy results at ground zero have been, in fact, part of the problem, not the solution. The cry to get back to business as usual drowned out saner calls for deliberative action. The haste to rebuild was justified as defiance of terrorism, a memorial to the victims, crucial for the local economy, and essential for the welfare of everyone in lower Manhattan. Calls for long-term planning were dismissed as foot-dragging and worse - even downright unpatriotic. Paradoxically, the rush to develop is one reason things are taking so long.

Timetables based on the notion that such a large and complicated project could be planned and built in less than decade were overly optimistic. Anyone familiar with real estate development in Manhattan knows that developing any 13-acre site easily can take five to 10 years. A glance at the history of the original World Trade Center would show that it took over 10 years to build the twin towers (and more than 15 years from the unveiling of David Rockefeller's Lower Manhattan Plan in 1958).

This site presents an array of complexities of beyond building10 million square feet of office and retail in lower Manhattan. The site needed clearance and environmental remediation, negotiations had to be held leaseholders, insurance claims needed to be settled, and the transportation infrastructure rebuilt. At the same time, officials had to address the concerns of the families of 9/11 victims. Meanwhile changing conditions in the office and financial markets had the potential to detour the best-made plans.

photo by Joe Woolhead
Photo by Joe Woolhead, courtesy of WTC Documentary Arts Project

The Public's Role

People from all over the city wanted to debate what should be done before the city and state moved ahead full steam with the first proposal that came to mind. In the first year after 9/11 there was a vibrant public dialogue about rebuilding plans. Several major coalitions and alliances of civic, professional and community groups raised serious concerns and put forth detailed programs and proposals. These included the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown, a coalition of more the 80 groups convened by the Regional Plan Association; NY New Visions, a coalition of 16 architecture, planning and design groups; Imagine NY, a project of the Municipal Art Society that held some 230 workshops, the Labor Community Advocacy Network; several groups in Chinatown, and more. There were also several organizations of families of the victims.

This civic chorus, perhaps one of the most widespread examples in New York City history of a popular desire to have a say in planning, was allowed to fade away. Then-Gov. George Pataki emphasized the need to move ahead with all deliberate speed. To do this he set up the Local Manhattan Development Corp. as a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp., ostensibly to expedite planning and management of the project by avoiding New York City's land use and zoning laws. To further expedite matters, Pataki appointed an LMDC board of directors top-heavy with executives from the financial community, though he was later pressed to appoint some board members recommended by the newly installed Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The LMDC cut short, narrowed and diminished the debate, but the unresolved questions raised in the public arena would come back later to stall the rebuilding effort.

Within months of its creation, and without competitive bidding, the LMDC commissioned a plan for rebuilding ground zero that basically put 11 million square feet of office space on the World Trade Center site. The agency released the plan in spring 2002 and was greeted with a fairly widespread thumbs down from the press, civic and professional organizations. Some 5,000 participants in the July 2002 Listening to the City assembly at the Jacob Javitz center voted against the plan, forcing the LMDC go back to the drawing boards.

The LMDC could have patiently considered the complex issues raised in the public discussions. Instead, in its rush to rebuild, the agency made some minor adjustments it felt addressed public concerns and immediately went ahead with the development of a new rebuilding program, calling for a slightly downsized office development with a memorial. The development corporation announced an international competition to come up with the design.

While the new program clearly represented a step forward, it diverted public attention from the big issues to discussion of the individual designs. With the selection of the finalists in the competition, the discussion over aesthetics drowned out the voices calling for a greater priority to the memorial, more residential space and more integration with the surrounding neighborhoods.

There then ensued a tense and time-consuming struggle over the design by architect Daniel Libeskind waged by developer Larry Silverstein, who eventually managed to exchange the Libeskind plan for a new arcade of office towers designed by other architects. But this only occurred after expensive and time-consuming conflicts and lawsuits over everything -- the program, the design, the memorial.

The calls from Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and labor and immigrant communities for a more inclusive planning process and reordering of priorities were barely heard. The LMDC's short-term thinking had won the day.

The back-to-work philosophy was responsible for more than just a problematic timetable for rebuilding. It also led to the unnecessary exposure of many rescue workers, lower Manhattan residents and office workers to toxic fumes and dust. The long-term effects of this short-term thinking on human health have yet to be fully understood (see related story).

photo by Joe Woolhead
Photo by Joe Woolhead, courtesy of WTC Documentary Arts Project

The City Goes Along

Before he took office in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg aid he saw no need to establish a separate authority to redevelop ground zero. He was also highly critical of large-scale development in lower Manhattan, favoring instead development in Midtown, including the ill-fated Jets stadium and massive rezoning.

Soon after his inauguration, though, Bloomberg dropped his opposition, apparently in exchange for promises by the governor that he could appoint some members to the LMDC. The mayor's deal with the governor led to an informal arrangement where the state take the lead on the rebuilding of lower Manhattan and the city would take charge of Midtown. City Hall also issued a broad strategic plan for lower Manhattan that included some of the elements called for by the local community board and civic groups, such as a park and green market. This provided a broader planning context for the rebuilding plan. But the process was backward: The plan for the WTC site was done first, without any close integration with the diverse communities in lower Manhattan. Then these other elements were added.

When Bloomberg forfeited jurisdiction over the site, he handed to the LMDC the powers for land use review, denying many people a say in the process. If the city controlled the rebuilding, it could have submitted the plans for approval under Section 197-a of the city charter, the designated path for all official plans. The city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) would have let at least one community board in lower Manhattan, the Manhattan Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council an opportunity to hold a public hearing, deliberate and vote on the plan. They would have been able to review and comment on the environmental impact statement.

That all might have seemed slower, but who knows what longer-term problems we might have avoided in the process.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Stated Meeting: Cooling City Streets

The burst of cool air aimed at luring impulse buyers off of city streets will now come with a cost.

The City Council approved legislation Thursday that would fine businesses for leaving their doors open while they have their air conditioning blasting. The bill, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to sign, would exempt stores smaller than 4,000 square feet.

In addition to the air conditioning legislation, the City Council also approved a bill that would exempt the commissioner for the Department of Buildings from being a registered architect or a licensed engineer.

A Ban on Cool Sidewalks

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a business with a typical doorway in New York City (or 6 to 7 feet across) can waste up to $1,000 and a ton of carbon dioxide if it leaves its door open in the summer.

That same practice can increase energy consumption by 20 to 25 percent, according to a report by the Long Island Power Authority.

That's why Councilmember Gale Brewer set out to ban the practice. Her bill (Intro 264 ) was approved by a vote of 41 to 8.

Any business that keeps its door open to lure in customers will first receive a warning, followed by a fine of $200 for each open door. Another violation would increase the fine to $400 per door.

The bill would not apply to emergency situations nor to instances where doors have been propped open for deliveries or by customers carrying out merchandise.

"There are not going to be Department of Consumer Affairs cops lurking in every corner looking for someone who propped the door open for five minutes," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Brewer said the measure is meant to raise awareness, not revenue.

Some retailers and businesses associations opposed the legislation because they were afraid closed doorways would deter spontaneous purchases from passersby. Some council members who opposed the legislation said, in this case, the council was stepping too far into a business's affairs.

"We're going a bit far," said Councilmember Charles Barron, who opposed the bill. "Now we're going into our communities and closing the doors of businesses."

Though some retailers were concerned over the bill's affect on their business, the city's utility company, Con Edison, came out in support of the measure. "Critics who oppose the bill because they interpret it as a manner of individual elective choice miss the point," read a Con Ed statement. "It's not just the offending business that's paying the electric bill for the waste of energy. Everyone pays."

More Construction Legislation

In another round of legislation aimed at increasing safety and decreasing mismanagement at the Department of Buildings, the City Council approved three bills -- one of which brought an unusual amount of opposition from council members.

The council approved legislation, which would no longer require the commissioner of the Department of Buildings have a license in engineering or be a registered architect. The bill (Intro 755) was approved by 36 to 12, and it has seen considerable opposition amongst industry professionals.

One day following the council's approval, Bloomberg announced his intention of appointing Acting Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri as buildings commissioner. LiMandri has an engineering degree, but not a license.

Some members objected to the bill, seeing a need for a licensed professional to oversee the whole department – in part because the department has been mired in controversy and mismanagement. So far this year, there have been 16 fatalities as a result of construction site accidents.

“We’re hiding behind this,” said Councilmember Diana Reyna, who voted against the legislation. “We must not lose site of the fact that we’re losing lives, putting New Yorkers at risk.”

The bill requires either the commissioner or the first deputy commissioner have an engineering license or be a registered architect. Supporters say it will provide the administration greater flexibility when choosing a department head.

In addition to changing the requirements for the commissioner, the council also approved legislation (Intro 783) that requires a site safety manager be hired for construction jobs that require pouring concrete. The accident in January at Trump Soho, which caused one fatality, occurred during concrete operations, said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Concrete safety managers will be required at major work sites -- those involving structures taller than approximately 10 stories, said Quinn -- that pour more than 2,000 cubic yards of concrete.

The bill was approved by a vote of 49 to 0.

Also, by a vote of 49 to 0, the council approved legislation ( Intro 790) requiring all workers at construction sites take a 10-hour course from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration every five years. A site safety plan must include a statement verifying that all workers have completed the course.

Disclosing Funding

The council unanimously approved a finance resolution (Reso. 1585) outlining what groups received $32 million in funding that was first earmarked when the council approved the city’s budget in June.

The council appropriated the funding to 158 organizations. Quinn said all the organizations were selected by the chair of the relevant committee, the initiative’s sponsor, or by the speaker’s office with advice from relevant parties. They were also approved by the council’s budget negotiating team.

Quinn said all of the groups had been vetted properly.  

The Bronx's Secret Shore

Bronx Beach and Pool Club, courtesy of Jim Manning
A 1950s snapshot from the heyday of the Bronx Beach and Pool Club, now closed.


Touring the Urban Riviera:
An audio slide show of New York's public beaches.

Whistle While You Work:
The job is outside, you wear a bathing suit -- and the city usually has openings.

Coney Island Roller Coaster:
The fight over how to develop the famed beach continues.

Urban Riviera?
New York's beaches offer surf and sun without a long drive on the Long Island Expressway. But how safe and clean are they?

New York's Best and Worst Beaches:
They are both on Staten Island but there the similarities end.

Where can New Yorkers enjoy a private, shorefront club, bayside swimming, a pebble beach and a restaurant with a beautiful view of the water?

You might not have said the Bronx.

That's because few New Yorkers have heard of the Bronx' century-old private waterfront clubs, which have provided generations of local families many of the same luxuries enjoyed by mansion dwellers in the Hamptons and Westchester. The clubs offer members-only pools and bars and private piers for fishing and boating -– all within walking distance of Bronx homes.

"It's family-oriented," said American Turners Club trustee John Maloni. "We've got old-time members, and their kids are members now."

But with the economy in trouble and developers eyeing the area's valuable shorefront properties, these little-known clubs are struggling to stay afloat.

Several independent beach clubs have sold their valuable property to developers. Of the surviving clubs along Clarence Avenue in Throgs Neck, several belong to larger national organizations or societies, which has so far helped them avoid selling their land.

"There's five beach clubs left," said long-time Turners Club member Frank Polgano. "There used to be nine or ten. The economy is destroying us. Not only is it expensive to run the place, but it's tough for people's personal expenses too. We're on the verge, we're extremely close."

Developers Versus the Community

Many locals fear their clubs will fall victim to the development in Throgs Neck. An influx of new families in the neighborhood over the last five years has made it especially appealing to condo developers and chain retailers.

"The area has been discovered," said Kenneth Kearns, district manager for Bronx Community Board 10, which covers Throgs Neck and the surrounding communities. "It was traditionally a nice viable, economically stable community of one to three family homes and mom-and-pop stores. And now it's changing because the city is changing."

Local businesses like the Silver Beach Deli now compete with the national chains lining Tremont Avenue: McDonalds, Wendy's and Dunkin' Donuts.

According to Kearns, the easy commute and the larger homes are wooing Manhattan families. He predicts that the new Yankee Stadium will spur even more development.

"Every day there's something else that wants to come in, and every day there's a fight," Kearns said. "It all engenders great controversy. People come in with lofty ideas for what they want to do. It usually runs counter to what current residents want. So there's a lot of debate and a lot of concern, and a lot of issues have to be resolved."

The district was recently downzoned to in an effort to limit development and crowding. But locals still worry about change, especially as the beach clubs – a summertime staple for many families – seem threatened.

Clubs at Risk

For a century, beach clubs provided a place to swim with the family next door. Members say they foster community and provide convenient and private alternatives to Orchard Beach or the public pools a few miles away, which are swarmed on the summer's hottest days.

But neighborhood changes have had an effect.

"It's not like it used to be in the '80s and '90s when the club was full of families and kids," Polgano said.

The Turners Club no longer has a waiting list for membership, and it suffered more than $100,000 in losses last year, according to Polgano. Maloni declined to confirm that number.

"People can't afford the luxury anymore. We have fewer members, and the bills are going up," Polgano said. He estimated a yearly membership costs around $1,000.

Unlike other areas of the Bronx -- a county notorious for its poverty --Throgs Neck boasts upper and middle class families who can afford such luxuries. In 2007, 41 percent of households had incomesof more than $75,000.

The economy, though, is not the only reason for declining membership. As new families move in, many of the kids who grew up in the area are leaving.

"We live in a very mobile society," said Lloyd Ultan, history professor at Lehman College and Bronx borough historian. "Usually in these clubs, memberships go through the family, from father to son, mother to daughter. If the sons suddenly live in Oshkosh, it's a long walk back to the Bronx."

"The kids move to Westchester, and the people who are all up here are grandparents," Polgano said. "The parents aren't joining anymore, and when member families move away, they're not really being replaced."

Sticking to the Neighborhood

Facing shifts in local dynamics, the clubs are hesitant to expand their outreach beyond the neighborhood, reluctant to tinker with their insular, community focus.

"They're very happy to be on their own and enjoy what they have," Kearns said.

It's no accident that the clubs aren't common knowledge. Local hang-outs, similar to neighborhood bowling alleys or card clubs, they aren't pitched at people from outside the surrounding community.

"The clubs are only for the people in the neighborhood," Ultan said. "Most members are just living a stone's throw off the waterfront anyway, so the clubs are just part of the neighborhood. It started out to serve the people in the neighborhood, and it was a way where people could get together and all had equal access to the water among themselves."

Membership applications include a vetting process. At the Danish American Beach Club, applicants need to be sponsored by a five-year member in good standing.

As Carol Richardson, manager at the Turners Club, recently said to a reporter, "It's a strip of heaven that we try to keep secret."

Even with their institution struggling to survive, Turners trustee Maloni said the club will not change tactics or expand outreach, continuing to confine advertising to local churches and the Bronx Times.

"We're going to stick to the neighborhood," he said.


Coney Island's Latest Roller Coaster Ride

mermaid parade, photo by Gail Robinson
Photo by Gail Robinson
Above, participants in last month's Mermaid Parade pay homage to Coney Island landmarks.

In a city with its share of eccentrics, Coney Island's annual Mermaid Parade is like an early-summer extravaganza: a chance for people of a creative and competitive bent to one-up each other while everyone else revels in how wonderfully strange New York City can get. This year's parade was no different. A 10-year old girl navigated the Boardwalk on stilts while a bearded man in a wedding dress, a fellow in a giant lobster suit, and assorted mermaids, pirates and sea monsters watched from below.


Touring the Urban Riviera:
An audio slide show of New York's public beaches.

The Bronx's Secret Shore:
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of its residents, the Bronx serves as home to a number of private beach clubs.

Whistle While You Work:
The job is outside, you wear a bathing suit -- and the city usually has openings.

Urban Riviera?
New York's beaches offer surf and sun without a long drive on the Long Island Expressway. But how safe and clean are they?

New York's Best and Worst Beaches:
They are both on Staten Island but there the similarities end.

Most — but not all — of the attendees at a Department of City Planning meeting the following Tuesday had changed out of their parade costumes. The meeting was held to gather public comment on plans for the area's much-discussed redevelopment. A animated handful of Coney enthusiasts spoke against a controversial change to the city's earlier zoning proposal for the area. Mermaid Parade queen Savitiri D. deemed the event so important that she staged a hunger strike in a Surf Avenue storefront during the three days between the parade and the meeting.

Almost everyone who spoke agreed that the historic seaside amusement area is in need of radical change. The question is what those changes will entail and how much of the area's unique character will -- and should -- remain.

Amusement Park or Shopping Mall?

The latest controversy is over whether the city is giving developer Joel Sitt's Thor Equities enough room to construct a major amusement park — or whether the city and the developer hope to crowd out amusements with large-scale retail.

In 2005, Thor Equities announced ambitious plans for a part of the city that has been notoriously difficult to redevelop: Coney Island's century-old amusement zone. The victim of decades of decline, it went from being the home of Luna Park, Steeplechase and Dreamland to an economically flagging neighborhood dotted with public housing and high-rise apartments. Sitt's plans called for a major turnaround fueled by an indoor waterpark, hotels, up-market retail and new rides. He is gamblig that visitors' will trek to the fringes of Brooklyn for a Las Vegas-style, year-round entertainment district.

The project generated even more controversy in June when the Department of City Planning announced a revised version of a zoning plan first put forward in November of last year. Both the original and revised versions of the city's plan zoned the northern and western sections of Coney Island for mixed residential and retail uses. Meanwhile, the eastern side of Coney Island—the core area between the Parachute Jump and the Cyclone—would be redeveloped as a massive entertainment center, with new rides, a steel roller coaster, a waterpark and a hotel. Landmarks like the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel would be preserved while the boarded-up Childs' Restaurant and the historic B&B Carousell and Shore Theatre would be renovated and reopened.

The city would take over the land that currently serves as the site of Astroland and would use the property for privately owned rides. The placement of the rides on public parkland would insure that the area remain an amusement park. A long-awaited community center and the expansion of parkland on the southern end of the amusement area were also incorporated into the plan.

The city's zoning plan intends to preserve the amusement area "in perpetuity," although the updated proposal reduced the zone mapped for open amusements from the original proposal of 15 to 9 acres (it now includes 60 acres though most of that is vacant), while expanding the section for enclosed amusements and "entertainment retail." Dick Zigun, the sideshow producer, self-appointed mayor of Coney Island and former director of the Coney Island Development Corp., sees this as a danger sign. He fears the city proposal would open the door for a "mega-mall" in an area that the earlier plan had designated for amusements only.

Debating the Plan

Zigun resigned his position as a director of the city's Coney Island Development Corp. in June shortly after the city announced the changes to its initial zoning proposal. In his resignation letter, he wrote that the revised proposal endangered the core of the amusement district. "There is almost unanimous dislike of the new plan among amusement park owners, workers and fans," wrote Zigun. "You underestimate the protests, yelling and lawsuits headed your way from a land where legit businesses call themselves Cyclone, Thunderbolt and Tornado."

At the June 25 meeting, opponents of the plan included Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping, the president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, performers from Zigun's Sideshows by the Seashore and the vice president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. All of them claimed that a reduction of the amusement area would threaten the character of Coney Island and make it impossible to build a large, world-class amusement park. They also argued that "entertainment retail" was a backhanded attempt at building a mall, a point emphasized by the anti-consumerist Reverend Billy and others.

Coney Island Development Corp. president Lynn Kelly said that opponents of the revised plan have badly misrepresented it. According to Kelly, right now only five of the 60 acres currently zoned for amusements at Coney Island have rides and games on them, while the rest of the area lies unused. Amusements and other attractions in the "new" Coney Island would not be limited to the nine acres of outdoor rides, she said, but could extend into the eastern portion of the study area. "The fear that Coney East is going to turn into a mall is absolutely wrong," she said.

Purnama Kapoor, the Brooklyn head of the Department of City Planning says that "entertainment retail" will allow for year-round attractions that will complement outdoor amusements.

The real threat to the amusement area, in Kelly's view, comes from people dead-set against long-term change in Coney Island. She cited the anti-development attitudes that led opponents to cheer when pictures of vacant lots were displayed during a city planning presentation. This could be Coney Island's best chance, Kelly said, with the Bloomberg administration, Sitt and much of the community all lined up to support development. If the plan falls apart or Thor, Coney Island's largest landowner, gets impatient with the opposition, she said, the developer could sell its property or lobby the city to allow housing in the core area.

If that happened, it would not be the first time that a Coney landowner opted for housing instead of amusements. In 1964, developer Fred C. Trump (the father of Donald Trump) ordered the destruction of Steeplechase Park in order to construct luxury housing in the area formerly occupied by the decades-old amusement park. Although Trump could not get the area zoned for housing, he is notorious for personally throwing a brick through the glass façade of the park's beaux-arts Pavilion of Fun, leading a festive demolition of the building before it could be designated a historic landmark.

The Economic Picture

The loss of Steeplechase initiated decades of decline for an area that was once one of the country's premier amusement destinations—decades that would shrink the amusement area to 5 percent of its original size and see the demolition of other major Coney landmarks, such as the Thunderbolt roller coaster in 2000. Many in the local community support the city plan, seeing it as a means of maintaining the neighborhood's amusement zoning designation and restoring some of Coney Island's past glory.

"Nobody wants to see the loss of the amusement district" says Community Board 13 district manager Chuck Reichenthal. "The economy of the whole area can benefit as it's expanded and updated." He explained that the upcoming rezoning process has to ensure that the amusement industry has enough space to operate and that the neighborhood remains an affordable place to live and have fun.

Gregory Smithsimon, a professor of urban studies at Barnard College, agrees that any new development at Coney Island should appeal to as wide a socio-economic range as possible. Yet according to New York Magazine, Thor's prospective billion-dollar investment in Coney Island will only pay dividends if retail space and hotel rooms are rented at rates that would attract high-end retail and vacationers with disposable income.

Smithsimon believes that this speaks to one potential weakness in the Coney redevelopment. "It seems as if the only way we know how to do development these days is for upper income users," says Smithsimon. "But that's not urban planning, it's the Wild West."

According to Kelly, the development corportation has attempted to address that issue by including parks, beach improvements, a community center and affordable housing in the redevelopment project. Kapoor said redevelopment will bring overdue improvements to the neighborhood. "It will bring a new park," she says. "Right now the area mapped for the park is a parking lot for the Cyclones' stadium."

The Next Steps

Although the rezoning has already generated heated public meetings, opinion articles and debate, the public review process that will allow developers to finally break ground on the new Coney Island has not started yet. In fact, a final zoning text has not even been formally submitted for review.

Prior to land use review, the city investigates the environmental impact of any proposed development and issues a document explaining how the project will alter its surroundings. Right now, the Coney Island redevelopment is midway through the environmental review, which should produce a final zoning text in December. After that, the local Community Board, the Department of City Planning, the City Council and the mayor's office all must approve the zoning before construction can begin.

This process takes around seven or eight months, which means that final approval could come in the spring of 2009, putting the latest of Coney's "master plans" only a few years away from becoming a reality. No matter what happens, it is likely that Coney Island will be a much different place by the project's predicted completion date in 2019.


Facing Evictions -- Without the Right to Counsel

photo by Joe Gratz
Photo (cc) Joe Gratz

Question: Why it is safer to be accused of a crime and face prison, than to be a tenant facing eviction?

Answer: Because all criminal defendants have a right to legal representation and tenants do not.

It has been 45 years since the Supreme Court of the United States in Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed defendants the right to counsel in all criminal cases. But this right has not been extended to indigent civil litigants generally, and the courts have repeatedly rejected an expanded right to counsel.

Those who can afford to pay legal fees, whether in criminal or civil cases, always have had lawyers available to them and always will. The constitutional right to counsel in civil proceedings -- whether the litigants can afford it or not -- largely has been limited to situations threatening loss of physical liberty and to certain Family Court and mental health proceedings, usually involving state action.

A resolution of the American Bar Association urges federal and state governments to provide legal counsel as a matter of right, at public expense, to low-income "persons in those categories of adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody, as determined by each jurisdiction." No state, however, has enacted the legislation that would create a civil right to counsel.

Tenants Without Lawyers

New York's Family Court recognition of the right to counsel is the broadest in the country, affording counsel in cases involving foster care placements and removals, and denial of paternity for example. A parent who could face jail for being delinquent in child support payments is entitled to counsel, but a custodial parent seeking child support is not.

But the biggest problem, according to Andrew Scherer, executive director of Legal Services of New York City, is in housing evictions and now foreclosures. Suffiicient legal resources, including attorneys, do not exist to meet the tenant demand for representation, and they do not exist partly because there is no right to legal representation.

There are 27,000 to 30,000 evictions in New York City every year, almost all them involving tenants without lawyers. Since there is no right to counsel, "all existing resources put together are not nearly enough to begin to meet the need," says Scherer.

"Government policy establishes when landlords can evict tenants and when they cannot. But then you need the courts, and courts cannot do their work fairly and accurately without counsel on both sides. We value fairness and without lawyers there is no due process," says Laura Abel, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.

According to a 2001 study by the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, 98 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys in Housing Court. On the other hand 88 percent of tenants are not. But Abel cautions that it is misleading to think that means that even 12 percent are represented, because many tenants who would not have lawyers do not even try to fight their cases. In other words, a very small number of tenants have legal counsel.

Two bills introduced in the New York City seek to provide legal representation to tenants. Councilmember Rosie Mendez would create a mechanism for providing free legal services to indigent seniors (over 62) facing eviction or foreclosure. Councilmember Alan Gerson has introduced a similar bill that is not limited by age. No hearings have been scheduled or action taken on either measure. That may be partly for fiscal reasons since implementing either plan could cost $10 million to $15 million a year.

Abel believes the money would be well spent. "The city will save money or come out even," she says, "because the city loses money when people become homeless, families and children seek shelter, have increasing health problems, receive welfare, go to jail and are dislocated."

'A Fundamental Inequity"

While housing is a particularly acute need now, it is not the only area where poor people need representation. "Achieving a right to counsel in civil legal matters involving human needs will correct a fundamental inequity in our justice system," says Scherer, a leading advocate for "a civil Gideon." "By virtue of being poor, you have legal problems." He estimates that one quarter of New York City's population is poor and so qualifies for free legal services in housing, welfare, unemployment, disability and similar issues.

Abel has described the situation as "an issue of democracy and fundamental fairness because a society is not truly democratic, and its justice system not truly just, when its poorest citizens have no access to the protection of its laws. When the result is that families are unable to meet their basic human needs, it can fairly be called an ongoing state of emergency."

While New York State has 147,096 lawyers, with approximately 91,727 of them in New York City (as of 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available), most represent fee-paying individual and corporate clients. Only about 500 to 700 have jobs representing the underserved population in civil cases, according to Scherer.

Although it is impossible to estimate how many would-be clients don't even try to get legal representation, Scherer says New York's Legal Services turns away four people for every one the organization is able to represent, with 225 lawyers handling 25,000 cases a year. The Legal Aid Society and some other specialized organizations serving particular constituencies based on health, jobs or other identities also provide counsel in civil cases.

While some provisions allow judges to appoint counsel when they deem it appropriate, it does not provide for those lawyers to be paid. This makes the statutes all but meaningless since judges have no way to recruit lawyers willing to work without pay.

Relying on Volunteers

Advocates of a "civil Gideon" appreciate help from pro bono volunteer lawyers. The volunteer help only goes so far, however. The privilege of having a license to practice law does not require lawyers to represent indigent New Yorkers or do any unpaid work.

Despite that, many large firms do provide some pro bono services, whether out of social commitments they may have or to assist recruiting, since recent law graduates may find these matters more interesting and compelling than their day-to-day assignments. The firms also are mindful of their standing with the American Bar Association and such publications as the American Lawyer, which rank firms' pro bono activity. The New York State Bar Association encourages all lawyers to devote 50 hours a year to pro bono service and offers "a certificate suitable for framing," as well as a pin and a ribbon.

Major firms may do protracted and complex litigation involving such issues as Guantanamo detainees, international trafficking in the sex trade and asylum seekers. Others may serve a particular nonprofit organization or community organization dealing with domestic violence or the arts, doing transactional work including contracts and leases.

However, these firms and their volunteer lawyers are not usually prepared to handle individual emergencies, such as evictions and foreclosures. They generally do not provide one-on-one services.

And pro bono work does not establish a right to counsel.

In 1975, the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, said, "Courts and litigants must make do with what exists and with what lies within the powers and capacity of the courts and the Bar." That remains true -- and it means that there is no meaningful right to counsel in civil cases.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

Preserving Public Housing that Works

photo by Richard Alexander Caraballo
Public housing in the New York, home to over 400,000 people,
faces rising costs and federal cutbacks. Should the city step in?

Public housing that works is a legacy that New York would be foolish to squander. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to build or preserve 165,000 affordable housing units by 2013 was a promising start to meeting the city's low-cost housing shortage. Even if the mayor and his successors meet this ambitious target, it will be a hollow victory should the New York City Housing Authority simultaneously fail. NYCHA, after all, still manages 178,000 public housing apartments for over 400,000 low-income tenants. This vast system is under fiscal strain, as it has been for decades. Its collapse, sometime in the future, is not out of the question.

Gotham Gazette Commentary

The most frustrating dimension of NYCHA's current budget crisis is that by almost all accounts this should be the housing authority's golden age. After almost 75 years of comparative success, New York is one of a few cities in the world that has successfully managed high-rise public housing. New York's big bet on public housing has paid off.

Administrators have kept up the projects in spite of high crime, vandalism, aging structural and mechanical systems, and declining subsidies. Forty-five percent of NYCHA tenants are working families and only about 15 percent of families depend on welfare. The remaining 40 percent are seniors, veterans or the disabled. Project grounds are relatively well kept, the buildings solid if uninspiring, and the apartments impressively affordable. Billions of dollars have been spent in the last decade updating buildings, grounds and community centers.

The New York City Housing Authority is nevertheless at a crossroads. One of the secrets of New York's management since the 1930s has been solid staffing under a civil service model. Today there are still 12,500 employees, over 9,000 of whom clean and repair the authority's 2,600 buildings. These workers face major challenges maintaining housing developments at a decent standard, but by all accounts they have so far succeeded.

The Financial Squeeze

The down side of competent staffing is the costs generated by collective bargaining. This staff is entitled, as a result of state law, to generous pensions and regular raises. Fuel and other material costs have also skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, federal subsidies, which comprise approximately half of the authority's annual budget, have dropped during the Bush administration. Republicans have no love for public housing, well managed or not.

As a result of these declining federal subsidies and increasing operating costs, for the past few years the authority has run an approximate 10 percent annual deficit. Annual cuts have been made in everything from staff to social programs. Administrators have eliminated 2,500 positions over the past decade. Declining subsidies within a few years will lead to even steeper cuts in the projects that could undermine tenants' basic quality of life.

The authority's recent announcement that it will close its community centers, and raise rents once again on the higher income tenants, signals the onset of serious consequences resulting from annual shortfalls. The city as a whole can scarcely afford to let its projects decline as they have in other cities. The city government, to its credit, has underwritten billions in bonds for building renovation, and until a few years ago provided an annual subsidy. State and city government, however, have had to spend little to maintain such an enormous system because the combination of federal subsidies and rents have covered most of the annual costs.

What the City Can Do

The time for procrastination by elected officials is over. Two proposals by NYCHA deserve serious consideration by the mayor and the City Council. NYCHA's request that the city government fund the community center program should be adopted. These community centers have been chronically under-funded since the 1930s because federal subsidies have only paid to build community centers rather than to staff them. Over the years NYCHA has nevertheless drawn on general operating funds to create America's most impressive system of urban community centers, one that offers both tenants and non-residents programs such as summer camp and after-school. The city government's assumption of costs for community centers would save these worthwhile services and reduce NYCHA's annual deficit by $68 million.

The end of NYCHA's annual payment to the New York City Police Department would save another $68 million dollars. This payment is the legacy of the time when NYCHA had its own internal police force; after 1995, however, the police department absorbed responsibility for NYCHA security. The NYPD Housing Bureau has become an effective crime fighting force in public housing but an argument can be made that crime control in public housing is in the interest of the city as a whole. These funds would be better spent on general maintenance by NYCHA staff rather than paying for a service, police protection, that most citizens consider their basic right. More broken elevators, for instance, as result of further staff cutbacks, would make the police's job far more difficult in towers that often reach 20 stories high.

These two actions, totaling $136 million a year, would not wipe out the entire annual deficit (estimated at $200 million for the coming fiscal year), but they would give NYCHA the financial breathing room that it needs. As a proportion of the total city budget (approximately $59 billion) $136 million is a small price to pay for the preservation of decent homes for 5 percent of the city's population.

The Importance of Public Housing

Many New Yorkers, looking at public housing, would just like to see it disappear, but NYCHA is too big to fail quietly. Many neighborhoods will suffer if public housing falters because projects exist in every borough. Very few New Yorkers would want to live next door to crumbling projects similar to those that plagued Chicago or St. Louis.

Some housing advocates have cited anecdotal evidence of maintenance problems in some projects as evidence that the authority is already faltering, but New Yorkers don't understand what a failing project or housing authority really looks like. New York, as yet, has no project that rivals the disastrous tower blocks of Cabrini Green in Chicago or Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, which were demolished because even most poor people refused to live in them.

The housing market would also tighten should the projects fail. The loss of 180,000 apartments would certainly drive up costs for almost all renters in the city. Queensbridge Houses alone contains just over 3,000 units. Finding new accommodations for these families, perhaps by giving them vouchers, would create even more competition for existing affordable housing.

Multiply that number of families by 60 and you get some sense of the crisis the city will face should NYCHA collapse. Conservatives at think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, who want to sell off the projects, conveniently ignore the logistical nightmare that would ensue. Most of the projects redeveloped in other cities were partially empty; New York's are full to bursting.

Finally, public housing serves as an important home for low-wage laborers in the city. As NYCHA has shifted more firmly to working families in the recent decade, the argument that projects are just for welfare tenants and thus a social liability, no longer holds true. Almost half of the families in the system have at least one working member and most of them participate in the lower end of the job market. Business leaders constantly complain about the high cost of operating here; losing public housing won't help this situation.

Preserving the authority at its current level of management will be far less costly, in both financial and social terms, than permitting its failure. Paying $136 million today will seem like a bargain in the future.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is an associate professor and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at the New York Institute of Technology. His new book, "Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century," is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.  

A House Divided in Washington Heights

New York Assembly District 72
This is part of a series of articles on the issues and candidates in the city's 2008 elections for state legislature and other offices. These stories, along with maps, links and other special features, will be appearing on our site between now and November.

Related Links on District 72:

Miguel Martinez
Adriana Espaillat
New York State Board of Elections (campaign finance information)

Who's Running for What
To find out who wants to represent you -- or what office your favorite official will seek next -- turn to our candidate database: "Who's Running for What."

Update: In the primary, Adriano Espaillat defeated City Councilmember Miguel Martinez. In the general election, he will face William Buran. Buran was the New York City organizer for the grassroots Ron Paul presidential campaign and credits Paul for motivating him to run. Buran calls for less government spending and smaller government.

At the end of the most recent reporting period, Espaillat had about $150. Buran had $2,858.

Three hundred and two years ago at the Battle of Fort Washington, the British defeated the Americans. This fall, in the neighborhood of that historic fight, the uppermost tip of Manhattan will find itself a different kind of battleground.

City Councilmember Miguel Martinez announced on June 2 that he would challenge incumbent State Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat in the Democratic primary for the State Assembly District 72. This year, as in every even-numbered year, all seats in the New York State Assembly and Senate are up for election. Primaries for State Assembly positions are often a non-event, but this year many races are unusually heated.

This is especially true in Manhattan, where term limits on the city's elected officials will make nearly three quarters of the City Council unemployed after the 2009 elections. The term limits restrict elected city officials to two full terms. For those whose tenure will come to an end in 2009, the 2008 elections in Albany offer a shot to continue in government.

That seems to be the situation facing Martinez, whose two terms expire at the end of 2009. Despite that, his decision to run against his former mentor and current rival, incumbent Espaillat, comes as a surprise to many -- including Espaillat.

"Yes, I'm surprised," he said of Martinez's decision. "Martinez comes out of our club and we did everything we could back in 2001 to get him elected. It's like someone from your own house turning on you."

Espaillat and Martinez were once both members of the same political club, Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change. Martinez worked in Espaillat's first campaign, and Espaillat helped Martinez with his campaign for City Council in 2001. Martinez left the club and formed his own, Democrats in the Heights. Since then, there has been little communication or cooperation between the two. Last September, they backed rival candidates for a district leader post. What once seemed to be a mentoring relationship is now more strained.

Looking at the Record

Espaillat has a long record in the area's politics. In 1996, he became the first Dominican American elected to any state legislature, representing District 72, which includes Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill. Now chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, he cites his work to give free college tuition to veterans of the current war through the CUNY system as one of his accomplishments. He also initiated "Nos Quedamos," a program for tenants. Through it, Espaillat said, hundreds of residents have attended town-hall meetings about issues facing renters and he has secured the money and resources for a free legal clinic for tenants.

"A testament to my good work done is more people moving in," Espaillat said.

Martinez has served on the City Council since 2002 and chairs the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services as well as being a member of several others. He is the Democratic district leader in Inwood Community. He says bringing money into the community has been his major accomplishment as a council member. That achievement, though, has recently raised some questions about whether he funneled money to an organization where his sister served on the board.

Both candidates see the primary campaign as a chance to demonstrate what they have done for their constituents. "This gives the community the opportunity to evaluate his work and my work," voiced Martinez.

As a longtime member of the Assembly, Espaillat had lined up support for his re-election. The looming question is, of course, whether or not that will withstand Martiez's unexpected challenge.

Espaillat holds an endorsement from the New York Working Families Party. The Empire State Pride Agenda and the United Federation of Teachers have not completed their endorsement process, but the Pride Agenda has contributed funds to his current campaign and the teachers have endorsed him repeatedly in the past. "Everywhere I go I've been getting signs of support," Espaillat said.

Martinez, too, feels he is garnering support, though he has not yet registered with the Campaign Finance Board.

A Breach Between Allies

With two former allies running against each other, the race has gotten buzz in the blogs. But some dismiss the talk of an epic feud.

"I don't see the battle. The only things you hear are rumors here and there," said Ebenezer Smith, district manager of the local community board.

"The media is putting the negative connotation on the race," according to Martinez.

"I am not involved in a feud," Espaillat said.

While reports of hostility between the two have been raging in online forums, both men maintain a civil, if nuanced, demeanor when trying to distinguish themselves from each other. And in many respects, they agree. When asked the most important issue facing the district, both men concur that it is the cost of rent. Additionally the two voice concerns about economic development and education.

They do disagree on how effective the other one has been. Martinez blames Espaillat for the lack of funding for the district from the Empire State Development Corp. Espaillat feels that Martinez "has not been a strong voice for housing."

Ydanis Rodriguez, who is looking to run for City Council in 2009, feels the competition is inspiring others to get involved in improving their neighborhood. "The community is tired of looking at races that focus on personal issues. We want to look at what [the candidates] have done," he said. "Any race should be open to whoever can do the better job for the community. We should encourage voters to look at who will serve them best," commented Rodriguez.

Smith agrees. "Whoever is elected will find a Community Board willing to work with that person," he said. There is no evidence that they will not find an equally receptive and cooperative community.

In fact, rather than seeing this campaign as a detriment to the community, many see it as a benefit. "This is part of what makes this nation great, the democratic process," Martinez said.

On that Espaillat agrees. "The voters will have their say," he said.

For More Information

Miguel Martinez


Adriana Espaillat

New York State Board of Elections (campaign finance information)



In the Heights: Vitality and Diversity at Manhattan's Tip


photo by Susan Sermoneta
Photo (c) Susan Sermoneta
In Washington Heights, street vendors flourish, as do small stores and restaurants.

With its four Tony Awards, including the one for best musical, "In the Heights" has not only thrust itself onto New York's radar screen, but also has put its revered neighborhood of Washington Heights, on a high ridge in northern Manhattan, fully on the map.

"I used to think we lived at the top of the world," sings Nina, the hit's lead, as she reminisces about her idyllic childhood uptown, "when the world was just a subway map and the one slash nine climbed a dotted line to my place." She has returned home from Stanford University, where she was lost academically and socially, to find her place again in her old neighborhood. "In the Heights" is about love, family, aspirations, disappointments and finding one's way in a difficult world - all sung and danced by gorgeous young Latin performers to original music, as the set's George Washington Bridge shimmers in the background.

What "Sex and the City" and "Friends" did for Lower Manhattan, "In the Heights" may well do for Washington Heights. That would be useful, because some New Yorkers are not sure what or where it is. Jon Paul Buchmeyer, co-owner of Tentpole, a Midtown public relations and communications firm, said that when he bought a house on 183rd Street "a lot of friends reacted with: Where is that? Is that even in Manhattan? That sounds like the Bronx!"

In fact, Washington Heights - which extends from 155th Street north to Dyckman Avenue and from the Hudson River to the Harlem River - is the ultimate New York neighborhood of dramatic topography (two ridges run north and south along its entire length), admirable parks and open spaces, elegant early 20th century housing stock, renowned cultural institutions, excellent restaurants, diners, food carts and bars, and glorious ethnic diversity. It has magnificent architectural bones, at least in part because the wealthy aristocrats who laid out the Audubon Terrace section of the neighborhood in the early 1900s deliberately designed buildings, streets and public spaces to attract households from the Upper East Side. By the time of the Great Depression, handsome apartment houses had already been built, and important institutions - including Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and Yeshiva University - had opened. Though it became one of the city's most successful immigrant neighborhoods in the 20th century, Washington Heights had the housing stock and institutions of the wealthy-not the tenements of, say, the Lower East Side, built for the poor.

A Neighborhood of Immigrants

photo by Susan Sermoneta
Photo (c) Susan Sermoneta

Primarily Dominican today, Washington Heights has hosted nearly every immigrant group - Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican - welcoming, absorbing, and transforming its residents. "The word diversity is beaten to death," said Andy Linares, who grew up in Washington Heights and who now owns Bug-Off Pest Control Center, which he says is the largest supplier of pest-control products in the city.

[To read about the current race for State Assembly from Washington Heights, see "A House Divided."]

"But this neighborhood was always diverse," he continued. "Everybody worked together. There was no predominant group. We shared each other's culture. We celebrated Italian holidays and hung out with the Irish kids. Now we're seeing an influx of people from other areas of the city. Great! Fine with me so long as they're going to be invested in the neighborhood and make it better."

Buchmeyer agrees. Having moved to Washington Heights from the East Village, he recalled briefly worrying about missing that area's hipster hangouts. But now, he said, "what appeals to us are the little mom and pop places, like La Cabana Salvadorena, up the street, owned by immigrants from El Salvador, or La Caridad, our local diner, which shows up in 'In the Heights.'"

On a beautiful weekend afternoon both are packed with customers - several stand outside Salvadorena on Broadway and 187th Street eating pupusas, golden-brown corn cakes filled with pork and cheese, costing $2. Upscale restaurants like Hispaniola at One Nagle Avenue are also doing well, relying on word of mouth and repeat customers. Owner Rolando Lantigua says that while Hispaniola is a little expensive for the area, about 65 percent of its customers are local while the rest come from Westchester and Rockland Counties.

Latin immigrants - who brought Washington Heights back to life after the dark, dangerous days of the 1970s - have stamped their own ethos on the neighborhood, which is stuffed with retail shops, boutiques, salons and vendors. The streets teem with customers spending money. Indeed, upper Broadway may well be Manhattan's most vibrant commercial street, still lively well into the evening.

Can Everyone Live in Peace?

Now that Washington Heights is becoming a destiny of choice for young people trying to move to New York as well as for households priced out of the West Side, can all the residents live in peace?

Lucie Bilbao, who owns Lucie's House of Beauty on 183rd Street and Andy Linares' mother, hopes so. "A lot of American young people are moving in, artists and writers," she said. "They're very nice. A few are starting to come by. But they don't like to take care of the face as much as Dominicans do."

Jeffrey Gardere, a part-Haitian and part-Dominican real estate broker with Corcoran who grew up in Washington Heights, said he tells newcomers, "You have to reacclimate yourself and understand the culture of the new neighborhood. If you want the best café con leche, we have it. Or the best seafood spiced up with rice and beans, come up here. And while we don't have Whole Foods, we have fresh foods-the best possible fruits and vegetables that you can buy off the stands on the street."

He believes that Washington Heights real estate offers Manhattan's premiere bargain. The handsome buildings on Riverside Drive, like the Rivera and the Grinnell, have apartments that are some 40 to 50 percent less than comparable apartments 70 blocks south on the Upper West Side. A seven-room co-op in mint condition in the Rivera, for example, is listed at $1.195 million. A four-room apartment in excellent condition at 930 St. Nicholas Avenue is listed at $429,000.

Will prices stay relatively low? Probably not over the long term, but yes in the short run, since many buyers fleeing high Upper West Side prices will turn to Harlem before heading further north to Washington Heights.

Meanwhile, the characters of "In the Heights" worry about the woes of gentrification and ever rising real estate values. "Our neighbors started packin' up and pickin' up and ever since the rents went up it's gotten mad expensive," sings Usnavi, the stand-in for the playwright. "But we live with just enough."

Planner Alex Garvin who, as a housing official in the Beame and Koch administrations oversaw the city's neighborhood preservation programs in the 1970s, argues that "immigrant succession patterns is what New York is all about." The Dominicans are not being pushed out, he says, any more than the Greeks were before them. As Dominicans move up economically, many will move to more prosperous areas, including the suburbs, while others will stay, investing in their businesses and residences.

"It's my view," said Garvin, "that you can't predict population movements accurately. Too many factors are involved, including what happens to Dominican immigration. What's important is that the neighborhood remain a welcoming place for immigrants."

Crime Still Raises Its Ugly Head

In the musical, crime is minimal-a minor break-in and a little graffiti. Even the graffiti turns out to have been done by a true artist-and one with a generous spirit.

Crime in the real neighborhood, however, is more complex. Wracked by drugs in the 1970s and 1980s, Washington Heights started to emerge from the nightmare of violence in the early 1990s with the waning of the crack epidemic. And while violent crime is down roughly 80 percent since 1993, it is by no means gone. Washington Heights's 33rd Precinct has had 10 rapes reported so far this year-double 2007's 5 rapes.

Robberies are up to 101 from last year's 92. There have been no murders, as opposed to 3 in 2007. Its adjacent 34th Precinct, also in Washington Heights, has had one murder so far this year, as it did last year, and 11 rapes, as opposed to 10 in 2007. The 34th's robbery and felonious assault statistics are almost identical to last year's, and grand larceny is up about 25 percent.

Linares, who said he was saddened when the neighborhood went downhill with drugs, considers it safe today. "People who are invested in the neighborhood are moving in," he said. "And watching things."

Linares, however, finds "In the Heights" a little annoying. One of the plot lines is about the neighborhood beauty who is eager to move up by moving downtown. "Why would she want to do that?" Linares asked. "This neighborhood is about people wanting to move in, not out."

Ultimately both the beauty and Usnavi stay, prompting Jon Paul Buchmeyer to note that many Dominicans have been making that same decision. "What's cool and authentic," he said, "is that neighborhood change and improvement is coming from third generation Dominicans like Usnavi, who decides to stay and redo his shop. They're investing and reaping the benefits of the great neighborhood they've created."

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. 

The Past and Future of Sustainability

Greenprint for New York City
PlaNYC 2030 provides a kind of "greenprint" for the city.

More than a year has passed since Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood in the Hall of Ocean Life at the Museum of Natural History and announced his PlaNYC2030 for a green and growing city. The wide-ranging proposal immediately attracted much attention and general praise for taking a long-term look at the city and for offering specific ideas to reduce pollution, increase energy efficiency and expand New Yorkers' access to transit and parks.

Since then, the city has planted trees, opened new bike lanes, left schoolyards unlocked after 3p.m. -- and seen its congestion pricing plan fail. Given that mixed record, what does the future hold for PlaNYC -- for the rest of the Bloomberg administration and beyond.

Earlier this spring, Gotham Gazette launched Sustainability Watch with Hunter College's Center for Community Planning & Development. Last week the center's Tom Angotti, professor at the Department of Urban Affairs & Planning and Gotham Gazette’s land use columnist, sat down for an online chat about planning for the future -- and for sustainability.

Gotham Gazette: Congestion pricing aside, what do you think the successes and failures were in the first year of PlaNYC?

Tom Angotti: This is the city's first long-term sustainability plan and a rare adventure into the future.

It is really tempting to list presumed successes and failures, but to do that we would have to suspend any belief that this is a long-term plan that deals with fundamentally critical problems like air and water quality, transportation, energy and housing. There have certainly been some steps forward in every area, but then the question arises whether they have anything to do with the 2030 plan or what would have been made in any case. The real test is whether the ambitious goals of creating a greener and healthier New York will be achieved. That just defies quick fixes and short-term solutions.

Voila -- the real benefit of a long-term plan: It can't be just a platform for the next election or two.

Tackling Traffic

Gotham Gazette: How damaging was the demise -- at least for now -- of congestion pricing to the mayor's overall plan?

Tom Angotti: The loss of congestion pricing was serious both because of the real value it would have had in reducing traffic in the city and because of the political momentum it could have created toward significant traffic reduction. Congestion pricing's benefits to Manhattan were real, but compared to the huge task of reducing traffic in the city, it was a very small step.

Missing from the start was a serious comprehensive plan to reduce traffic. If the city had started with a better plan to address real concerns throughout the city (and not just Manhattan) about traffic congestion, it might have had a better chance on congestion pricing. Maybe now there will be more political space to put forth such a plan.

Gotham Gazette: I'm wondering how much of PlaNYC incorporates building support statewide, not just within the city. In the case of congestion pricing, it seems the proposal lacked consideration from people outside of the mayor's coalition and from outside the city. How important do you think it is that PlaNYC reaches beyond New York City to secure its many goals?

Tom Angotti: Clearly an ability to work with Albany is key. But the other missing element is the region, including three states, hundreds of municipalities and thousands of independent authorities. It may be mind-boggling, but how can you reduce the city's carbon footprint when the city is a fraction of the region's population and land? How can the city reduce traffic when Jersey and Connecticut are widening freeways? What about the city's waste being burned in the incinerator on the Jersey side?

The task of even starting a regional discussion is daunting, but NYC is the most important player and the one most likely to kick it off.

Starting at the Top

Gotham Gazette: You have faulted the administration for not involving community groups and others in the drafting of PlaNYC. Is it too late for the mayor to reach out and involve community boards to ensure the survival of the plan? What could he do to improve the plans; chances of survival in the 18 months that Bloomberg has left?

Tom Angotti: Excellent question. I can't think of a better way to use the next 18 months than to launch 59 discussions, one in each community board, about long-term sustainability. They could and should go far beyond existing community board membership. Community boards can be the hosts of a wide-open, inclusive dialogue that will certainly lead to many new ideas. The mayor's office could challenge each community to come up with its own priorities for long-term sustainability, affordable housing creation, open space, and transportation. Let the communities speak!

Gotham Gazette: Some people would argue that devising a proposal as sweeping and ambitious as PlaNYC requires a top-down approach because individual communities tend to focus on their own narrow interests rather than those of the city as a whole -- the whole not in my backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon. How can you involve local interests and still come up with a big vision?

Tom Angotti: Alas, if I could be assured that everyone in city government was more committed to the public interest than the city's own residents, I would have to agree. But where is that evidence? In fact, there are many examples where city officials have enacted policies that dump on low-income neighborhoods, many of them communities of color, because they were fearful of confronting NIMBYites in wealthier neighborhoods. In my book, that makes them NIMBYs.

There is also a big difference between NIMBYism and just caring about a better quality of life in your neighborhood. It really is insulting for people in government to paint everyone who cares about their communities as NIMBYish.

Gotham Gazette: This question comes from the Planning Center at the Municipal Art Society. Given the lack of an up-to-date comprehensive planning framework for New York City, how can community-based planners take advantage of the creation of the Long Term Planning and Sustainability Office and/or PlaNYC? Does this offer any tangible opportunities for community-based planners derived from the existence of this new organism/initiative?

Tom Angotti: By all means, PlaNYC should make sustainability planning legitimate. In it, communities can find support for many of their sustainability initiatives that began long ago -- for example the effort to deconstruct the Sheridan Expressway and create open space and affordable housing (see Melissa Checker's ttp:// article).

What remains to be done is to create a more open and transparent process whereby community-based and City Hall planners can talk to each other. That is sorely missing because the process is really still top-down.

Missing Pieces

Gotham Gazette: It seems that the administration has relied largely on rezoning to ensure sustainable neighborhoods and to preserve their character. Does this kind of downzoning address the needs of a growing population?

Tom Angotti: Zoning isn't the answer to all of the complex questions about the quality of the environments we live and work in. Zoning only creates a regulatory framework, and the huge roll of rezonings has created as many development opportunities as it has preservation opportunities.

It seems to me that some of the rezonings are protecting very low-density enclaves in the city, areas where there is potential for much more development. Some of these areas -- because of their low density -- are bigger energy consumers, are auto-dependent and contribute less to long-term sustainability than denser areas.

Gotham Gazette: While much of the plan focuses on emissions from vehicles, as you know, buildings are responsible for the lion's share of greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Beyond city-owned buildings the plan does not have much to say about that. Should New York be doing more in this area? What would you like to see?

Tom Angotti: True, this is a big gap in the plan. A new building code may help, but will not address the vast majority of existing buildings. A few things that can be done (by no means an exhaustive list):

- Promote solar: Reduce the red tape, increase incentives, provide capital, for solar in buildings of all sizes and shapes.

- Help homeowners and building owners create green interiors that are healthier and less carbon-intensive.

- Work at the neighborhood level, with owners and tenants, to install energy-saving equipment, reduce heating needs and reduce air conditioning use, which also entails improving public spaces.

Gotham Gazette: For years, advocates have pointed to the city's overflow sewage system as a source of pollution in our waterways. What can the city do to solve this? Is a total overhaul even feasible given the cost, and how does PlaNYC 2030 address this issue?

Tom Angotti: PlaNYC acknowledges the problem, but its solutions are fairly sketchy and could well be countered by other developments. For example, population growth combined with rainfall increases could yield a more dire scenario. The effect of sea level rise wasn't taken into account either. And even if 90 percent of surface waters are cleaned up -- the plan's quantitative goal -- the other 10 percent could be deadly. Where will that 10 percent be?

Looking to the Future

Gotham Gazette: This is another question from the Municipal Art Society. Rumors have been flying about the possible agenda for the next Charter Revision Commission. Should PlaNYC be made part of the city’s charter?

Tom Angotti: It would be more important for the mayor and future mayors to observe more diligently the mandates for long-term planning already in the charter. PlaNYC could have been presented as a citywide plan and put through the review process outlined in Section 197-a of the charter. It wasn't. That deprived community boards, the City Council and the borough presidents of an opportunity to engage in the process.

I am skeptical that putting more enabling language in the charter by itself will make the executive office care about having a sustainable planning process. More useful would be a series of changes to local law that require the executive to plan in cooperation with other levels of city government. That could be combined with a charter change, but again, by itself, there's no guarantee it will mean anything.

Gotham Gazette: What do you think the plan's likelihood of survival is? And how can New Yorkers who support the plan, or at least parts of it, increase those odds?

Tom Angotti: The next mayor could disown the whole plan. Projects and programs already funded would obviously continue but those are only beginnings in what is supposed to be a 23-year effort.

I think the mayor's office needs some "tough love." It does no good to continue praising the plan for its obvious virtues. Some serious critical challenges need to be raised to the mayor, such as: If you're not around, who is going to do all the things that are supposed to be done? You can't cut community boards and at the same time expect them to carry forward the banners of NYC2030. With all new agency heads in a new administration, where will the plan's supporters be in government?


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