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A Factional Split in the Southeast Bronx


Update: Update: Ruben Diaz defeated Israel Cruz in the primary and will face Moran and Eligon in the general election.

In this contest for the Assembly seat from a corner of the southeast Bronx, Ruben Diaz Jr. faces a challenge from Israel Cruz. Diaz, the son of State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., was first elected in 1996. His Web site said he has focused on constituent services, health issues -- including the area's high asthma rate -- and environmental justice.

In the current internecine political battle in the Bronx, Diaz is allied with the Rainbow Rebellion, while Cruz has ties to Jose Rivera's county Democratic organization. Diaz, for example, declined to attend a dinner in July honoring Rivera. Diaz is thought to be exploring a run for Bronx borough president next year, as is Rivera' son -- City Councilmember Joel Rivera.

In the general election, the winner of the primary is set to face Republican Nelson Moran and conservative Sandra Eligon.

According to July filing reports, Diaz had about $15,177 on hand. Records for the other candidates were not available.

A Second Chance in Canarsie


ny state assembly district 59

Democratic incumbent Alan Maisel faces Conservative Party candidate Edward Bracken. Maisel, defeated H. R. Clarke, in September's primary.

Maisel collected $2,780 in contributions in the period covered by the 32 Day Pre-General filing and ended September with $48, 476. There was no report for Bracken.

Assemblymember Alan Maisel of Brooklyn faces another primary challenge from H. R. Clarke, a professor of political science at the City University of New York. Clarke tried to run against Maisel in 2006, but was kicked off the ballot for having invalid signatures.

Clarke, who grew up in Jamaica, was the first black candidate to run for the 59th Assembly district in 2006. In a questionnaire to a local Democratic club focusing on disability issues, he said the incumbent failed to hold handicapped accessible meetings and pledged to hire a disability liaison if elected.

Maisel was first elected to represent Canarsie, Flatlands and the surrounding area in a special election in 2006. He was the assistant director of the New York State Legislative Task Force on Reapportionment for a decade, a chief of staff for the former assembly member and a former school principal.

The primary victor will face Republican Edward Bracken this fall.

AS of the July filing deadline, Maisel had $43,164 on hand. Clarke had a negative balance of $4,295. Campaign finance information for Bracken was not available.

 

A Feud in Flushing


New York State Assembly District 22

UPDATE

Grace Meng, the daughter of former Assemblymember Jimmy Meng, defeated incumbent Assemblymember Ellen Young in the hotly contested primary. Although Young will appear on ballot on the Independent and Working Families Party lines, a person on her staff said she is not actively campaigning. Young told the Queens Chronicle that she plans to retire and focus on volunteer activities. Meng will then, for all intents and purposes, be unchallenged on Election Day.

* * * * * *

As a technical problem interrupted a recent candidates debate in Flushing, someone named Jerry dropped the ball.

"I'd like to just make the announcement that the Chinese headsets should be set to channels D or E," the moderator said. "I think Jerry was going to maybe make that announcement in Chinese."

No Jerry responded.

"Is he here to make that announcement?" the moderator repeated.

From her seat onstage, Ellen Young snapped to attention. "I'll do it," said Young, the incumbent State Assembly member from the 22nd district in Flushing and one of the evening's debaters. As she switched into Mandarin to relay the message, a few audience members clapped.

Born in Taiwan, Young arrived in New York three decades ago at age 25. Her relationship with New York's largest Chinese community, based in Flushing, helped her become the first Asian woman elected to the state legislature. But her opponent in the Democratic primary this year, Grace Meng, is seeking to present Young's immigrant background as a liability. This even though Meng is a second generation Chinese-American who, four years ago, helped her father become the first Asian elected to the New York State legislature.

Meng, who speaks fluent Chinese, stresses her own status as "American born." "Someone who was basically raised as an American just has a better capability to reach out to the younger generation," she said in a phone interview this week.

The bitter divisions in this largely Asian district would strike many observers as startling. But this contest would be unusual even without those rifts. Young is the only member of the State Assembly from Queens facing an opponent in the primary. Plus, on the surface at least, she appears to have a heftier record than many first-term Assembly members, passing five bills into law, including a measure to extend senior-citizen services. This made Young the first Asian American to pass a law in New York State. She also presided over the body as speaker pro-tempore, a special honor.

So, why is Young facing such an energetic, well-funded opponent? Her side attributes it to what they see as racism. Meng's camp cited a protracted political battle between two strong local political leaders - neither of whom is running in this race.

Language and Birthplace

On Main Street in Flushing, herbalists concoct remedies from ginseng, teens relax at bubble tea cafes, and the smell of Sichuan peppercorns wafts from the restaurants. The Asian community dominates the business scene there. And since the late 1990s, they have come to control much of local political life, as well.

As the Asian population and influence has increased, an undercurrent of resentment has festered among some non-Asian residents. According to Grace Meng, the primary challenger, some locals complain about "signs not translated into English" and "language barriers" in stores. Meng is seeking the support of those voters.

"I'm someone who was born and raised here. I'm comfortable with the culture. I'm comfortable with the language," Meng said . "When I speak to members of the Latino and Jewish community, they say things like, 'it's when the next generation that was educated here run for office' that the community has really advanced."

A lawyer in her 30s, Meng portrays herself as the American candidate. She supports stricter enforcement of an existing - but widely ignored - law requiring that signs be translated into English. Unlike the incumbent, she speaks English as a first language and without an accent, a point that she emphasizes.

"People have made comments to me that they understand me better," she said. "I can see why people would feel more comfortable with me." But she added, "I don't want to judge anyone based on their accent."

Meng is running with a coalition of locals known for their objections to the increasing Chinese presence in the area. One is Julia Harrison, a former member of the Assembly and the City Council who once described Flushing's Asian immigrants as "criminal smugglers" and "robbers." She has also supported measures to require storeowners translate their signs into English.

In response, Young's campaign labels as bigoted Meng's effort to portray herself as the American candidate.

"To somehow imply only an American-born Chinese is capable of serving the district is straight up racist and I'm not surprised to be hearing that from Grace Meng," Joe Reubens, the spokesman for Young's campaign, said in a recent phone interview.

Grace Meng doesn't see a contradiction between her stance and her father's election to the Assembly "He told me it was difficult sometimes because he didn't grow up here and because he wasn't as familiar with our community," she said.

The candidates' views on immigration, a key question in Flushing, reflect their different postures toward the Asian community. Meng emphasized her stance that immigration is a federal matter, and said that the state Department of Motor Vehicles should not issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"The DMV and the local police department shouldn't be regulating immigration," she said.

Young, however, supports driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, countering that the measure would help protect other drivers. She added that it would help bring undocumented people into the system.

This represents one of the few substantive policy differences between the two candidates. They largely agree on schools, housing, supporting small businesses and senior citizens issues.

The Clash of Two Powers

While the names of Meng and Young will appear on the ballot, some residents see the race as a kind of proxy fight between two area powers: City Councilmember John Liu, Young's former boss and the first Asian member of the City Council, and Jimmy Meng, a prominent businessman in the building materials industry. Liu is term limited and believed to have broad political ambition.

After being elected to the Assembly from this district in 2004, Jimmy Meng decided not to run again in 2006, citing health problems. He also faced growing speculation over possible improprieties in his 2004 campaign. Grace Meng stepped up to run for her father's seat, but so did Young, Harrison and Terence Park, a Korean America who has run in several races over the last few years.

Liu - who has said that anger over Harrison's characterizations of Flushing's Asian community inspired him to enter politics - backed Young. His organization challenged Harrison, Meng and Park's eligibility to appear on the primary ballot. Harrison and Park remained on the ballot, but Meng withdrew when her residency in the district was disputed. Young won the primary with 1,912 votes to Harrison's 1,855 and Park's 1,595.

Now backed by Harrison and Park - a coalition that Park takes credit for - Grace Meng said that Young is too closely tied to Liu.

"She's not as independent as she could be," Meng said.

Others in Meng's camp had stronger words. "I believe [Liu] has absolute power over our local community," said Park, who wants a new political machine to replace Liu's organization. Park, who is running for Democratic district leader from the area, said he sees the potential for the Mengs to grow into a powerful political family.

"Look at all the prominent family tree lines in our system, look at the Kennedys," he said.

Michael Tobman, a lobbyist and political consultant at Hudson TG who advises the Meng campaign, also portrayed Young as beholden to Liu.

"Ellen Young is a creation of the councilman," he said. "She would not have won without him. And she doesn't make decisions for herself. She doesn't have much in the way of independence. She just does what he says. It's not what the community deserves."

Young's campaign spokesman, Reubens, did not deny the two politicians work together. "John Liu is the local city councilmember. Obviously they have a longstanding relationship. Together they're tackling the problems of the community," he said.

For her part, Meng has benefited from being Jimmy Meng's daughter. Her father's connections in Flushing's business community have allowed her to raise a reported $111,943 as of the last filing deadline. Young outstripped her, with $224,073, but Meng is still running one of the best-funded primary campaigns in the state.

"My father has been really helpful in reaching out to the business community, just as anyone's family would be," Meng said.

 

The Organization Chases a Rainbow


ny state assembly district 83

Update: Carl Heastie fended off the challenge from Sherman Browne, scoring what was widely viewed as one of several victories the Rainbow rebellion lodged against the Bronx Democratic organization on primary day. Now, he faces Michel Blot on the Republican Conservative lines.

Heastie's bigger challenge, though, lies elsewhere. He is locked in a heated battle to replace the current head of the Bronx organization, Assemblymember Jose Rivera. That fight has now gone to the courts.

Meanwhile, Heastie's most recent campaign finance report, apparently filed in July, showed him with about $36,000. Blot reported no contributions.

This contest is one of several viewed as skirmishes in a war between the Bronx County Democratic organization, headed by Assemblymember Jose Rivera, and a rival group, calling itself the Rainbow Rebellion. In the 83rd, the incumbent, Carl Heastie, is often described as a leader of Rainbow, and some observers see Heastie as a possible successor to Rivera -- if the Rainbow Rebellion manages to win control of the county organization. Heastie's challenger, Sherman Browne has served as chief of staff to City Councilmember (and organization stalwart) Maria Baez. Michel Blot is the Republican and Conservative candidate.

Before going to the legislature, Heastie, who was first elected in 2000, worked as a budget analyst for the city comptroller's office. His Web site cites his work in " addressing education, economic development and furthering the interests of the elderly."

Heastie's July' campaign finance filing had him raising $73,240 and spending $43,414.62 for a closing balance of $36,031. Browne had $7,700 on hand. Records for Blot were not available.

 

Going Head to Head in Morrisania


ny state assembly district 79

Update: Sigfredo Gonazlez's idea that a head-to-head matchup with Michael Benjamin would carry Gonzalez to victory did not work out -- at least not yet. Benjamin won the Democratic nomination, but the two will face off again on Tuesday, with Gonzalez as the Republican nominee

This race marks the third time that Sigfredo Gonzalez, a sales manager for medical supplies, has sought to oust Michael Benjamin from representing Morrisania and Crotona in the State Assembly.

Gonzalez, though, thinks he has an edge this year. Unlike in the previous years, he is Benjamin's only primary opponent. And that's no accident -- Gonzalez successfully challenged the petitions of a third candidate, Jose Padilla, to get him removed from the ballot.

"This is the optimal situation for me," Gonzalez told the New York Times. "Now we have on the ballot only one African-American and one Hispanic. Of course, I'm not suggesting that the district should be represented by one or the other. I believe that it's for the voters to decide what will happen. And voters are tired of the representation we have now."

The district is 52 percent Hispanic and 43 percent black.

In addition to any ethnic division, the race offers a choice between Benjamin, a member of the anti-party organization faction known as the Rainbow Rebellion, and Gonzalez, a candidate who, Benjamin charges, has the backing of the organization. Gonzales denies he does. Steven Stern is the Republican and Conservative candidate.

Benjamin, a Bronx Board of Elections official, has held the seat since 2003 when the Democratic Party chose him to replace Gloria Davis, after she quit the Assembly and pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

Benjamin, who unlike most state Democrats backed Sen. Barack Obama against Sen. Hilary Clinton in this year's Democratic presidential primaries, has been cited for an independent streak, backing expanded social services and tenants' rights, enthusiastically supporting charter schools and opposing same-sex marriage. He achieved a brief bit of notoriety last year when he proposed making the cupcake the state's official snack, a gambit to quash efforts on Long Island to ban the treats at school birthday parties, in Benjamin's view, "robbing children of pleasant childhood memories."

July campaign filing records showed Benjamin with $38,677. Campaign records for the other two candidates were not available.

 

The Return of Allan Jennings


New York State Senate District 10

Huntley defeated Jennings and will be unopposed in the general electin.

Shirley Huntley has a rare distinction in New York politics: In 2006, she unseated an incumbent state senator. This came after that senator -- Ada Smith -- was convicted of assault for throwing hot coffee in an aide's face and pulling her hair (the aide allegedly commented on Smith's weight). The party organization stood by Smith who had gained a reputation for bizarre behavior -- but voters apparently had had enough.

Two years later, Huntley faces a challenge from another Queens politician involved in strange incidents: former City Councilmember Allan Jennings. A surprise winner in the Jamaica district in 2001, Jennings quickly gained some citywide notoriety when he took out a series of newspaper advertisements declaring his love for a Chinese folk dancer, compared himself to Jesus and was filmed throwing an object at a news reporter (an incident that made it on to "The Daily Show"). In 2005 his fellow City Council members fined and censured him for improperly firing one employee on his staff and creating a hostile work environment. During the proceedings, five women charged Jennings touched them inappropriately, subjected them to racist remarks and intimidated them. Jennings maintained his innocence but voters threw him out the following fall.

Now Jennings is making a bid for the State Senate because, an aide told the New York Times, "Public service is the only thing that makes Allan Jennings happy." And, the aide continued, "There are a number of people in the community who asked him to run because they felt they were not getting the kind of responses that they thought they should." During his four years in council, Jennings focused on constituent services.

Huntley said she was not concerned about Jennings' opposition. " "After all, he has nothing else to do," she has said. In the Assembly, her Web site says, she focuses on "health care, education, and youth services."

For her part, Huntley made newspapers earlier this year when she announced that she had not paid her mortgage in an effort to find out what her constituents go through with banks when they face foreclosure. The idea backfired, though, when it became known that Huntley had twice narrowly avoided genuine foreclosure, had refinanced her home 10 times in 30 years and, according to the Daily News, " had previously taken several risky loans from sub-prime lenders blamed for defaults in her Jamaica district."

As of July 1, Huntley had raised $38,855 in campaign funds and spent $28,805. Jennings filed for a shorter period and only reported $237.

A Battle for the Ballot in Flushing


New York State Senate District 16

In 1999, Toby Ann Stavisky became a state senator -- the first woman from Queens to do so -- after the death of her husband, Dr. Leonard Price Stavisky, a university professor, who had served in the legislature for more than 30 years. She has easily won re-election ever since and now serves as assistant minority whip.

Most observers think that will probably be the case in the primary this year. Her opponent is Robert Schwartz, who is identified as a retired businessman and political newcomer, who apparently has not campaigned much.

Assuming she bests him, Stavisky may face a more formidable challenge in November from Peter Koo, an immigrant from Shanghai who owns five pharmacies in Flushing and who is running on the Republican, Conservative and Independence party lines. Although Democrats outnumber Republicans by a four-to-one margin in the district, Koo has said he is helped by his ties in the area's growing Asian community.

She's kind of out of touch," Koo told the Daily News. "I can get more resources for the Asian community here."

Stavisky has mounted an energetic effort to knock Koo off the ballot, charging that he really lives in Port Washington on Long Island and therefore is not eligible to run for the seat.

A state Supreme Court Justice agreed, but in late August, a five-judge panel of an appeals court reinstated Koo. It agreed with Koo's contention that he had paid New York City resident taxes in 2007, and listed a Flushing condominium as his address on his driver's license and voted in Flushing.

This ends this particular challenge to Koo, but Stavisky seems undeterred. In a statement her campaign said it would evaluate "the legal options available to hold Peter Koo accountable for this serious election fraud."

 

A Long-time Incumbent in a Changing District


New York State Assembly District 42

Update: Democratic Incumbent Rhoda Jacobs won the state primary by a vote of 3,982 to 1,644 against Michele Adolphe. Jacobs now faces Alan Kesler.

Information could not be found on Kesler. Jacobs recently received an above average environmental record score from EPL/Environmental Advocates.

Jacobs has $73,362 in her campaign account, and, according to the latest filing, has spent $1,832. Campaign finance information was not available for Kesler.

In the 30 years since Rhoda Jacobs was first elected to this seat from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the area has changed dramatically. But as her district has become increasing black -- more than half the residents are from the Caribbean -- and Hispanic, Jacobs, who is white, has managed to hold on, beating back a number of challengers.

Some observers have attributed her survival at least partly to divisions in the opposition. If that is the case, Jacobs could be in trouble now as she faces only one challenger in the Democratic primary: Michele Adolphe, who ran unsuccessfully against Jacobs in 2004. A former high school teachers who has held executive positions with a number of programs for children, Adolphe is basing her campaign on a call for change,

Jacob had almost $75,000 on hand on the July campaign finance filing deadline; Information on Adolphe's fundraising was not available.

Whoever wins the primary will face Republican Alan Kesler in November.

 

GOP Divisions Could Make Staten Island Blue


US Congressional race, District 13, Staten Island Divisions

Their yards. Their minivans. Their accents. These are just a few of the things that distinguish Staten Islanders from other New Yorkers.

"It's just got a different vibe. Less metropolitan, more soccer mom," said Tom Johnson, who lives in Manhattan.

And there's another point of difference between Staten Island and the other five boroughs: It's Republican.

"Its political heritage is one of conservatism," said David Wasserman, the House analyst for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. "Staten Island does not like to pay high taxes for city services that go to other boroughs that are typically in more need of government assistance."

This November, though, the most suburban borough could become a lot more like the rest of New York -- politically, at least. After going for President George W. Bush in the last presidential election, this district on Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn is poised to elect a Democratic representative for the first time in 26 years, according to many predictions.

But the Democrats shouldn't celebrate prematurely. With the Republicans fielding a determined candidate, much of the electorate still on the fence, and the Democrats waging an internal debate, there still is the possibility that this district could remain the only one in the city to send a Republican to Congress.

A Rough Summer for Republicans

If Staten Island does elect a Democratic congressman this November, it could be in part due to political upheaval on the Republican side. It takes an entire hand to count the controversies afflicting the borough's G.O.P. in recent months.

One: arrest of the incumbent representative, Vito Fossella, for drunk driving.

Two: his secret mistress -- and daughter.

Three: the party's struggle to name a replacement to run in November.

Four: the untimely death of the party's selected candidate.

Five: the opposition by many Republicans to the party's eventual choice, Robert Straniere.

But the G.O.P still sees Staten Island as Republican territory and does not intend to sit this one out.

Divided Democrats

With all their difficulties, the greatest hope for the Republicans may echo one buoying the G.O.P.'s hopes nationally: that ridden by divisions, the Democrats' will create their own undoing.

Four years ago, Democratic attorney Steven Harrison mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge to Fossella, winning 43.3 percent of the vote. Almost immediately he began laying the groundwork for a rematch.

Once Fossella got in trouble, though, Michael McMahon, a term-limited City Council member, decided to enter the race. McMahon portrays himself as a centrist, while Harrison, a local community board chair, has views that fall further to the left.

The establishment has lined up behind McMahon, with Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, major unions and even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which usually stays neutral in primaries, all endorsing the council member. An independent poll gives McMahon a 46 percentage point lead. Harrison also faces an upward battle financially: he had $180,000 compared to McMahon's near $500,000 as of the last filing deadline. (Straniere did not have to file because he was not a candidate at that time.)

"I don't think people see this as a competitive primary anymore," Wasserman said. "There's not much question McMahon will be the Democratic nominee unless Harrison can come up with a credible line of attack."

Republican Rifts

The Republicans, though, face their own deep divides. Tapped for the race after the party's initial choice Frank Powers died in June, the current candidate, Straniere, is a controversial figure. After 24 years in the State Assembly, he angered members of his own party in his unsuccessful campaign for borough president in 2001. In retaliation, he lost his Assembly seat in a Republican primary in 2004. His name still inspires vitriol from some of the Republican leadership.

Making matters worse in the eyes of many islanders, he now resides in Manhattan, though plans to move back to Staten Island, where he says he has lived "virtually all my life."

Straniere does have an opponent in the primary: Jamshad Wyne, a doctor. Wyne did not respond to requests for an interview. Neither did Carmine Morano, who will not appear on the ballot but is waging a write-in campaign for the Republican nomination. Nevertheless, the larger problem facing Straniere may well be Republicans who decide not to vote for him in November.

Straniere thinks he can overcome this -- and a widespread feeling that the GOP will not fare well this fall.

"You have an open seat in what we all acknowledge to be a difficult year for Republicans nationally," he said in an interview at his Manhattan office. "But that being said, my district has had a Republican representative for 28 years. I'm very confident that my district will continue to be represented by a Republican -- namely me."

Where They Stand

The alignment of the candidates on several issues presents a bit of a paradox: the contenders furthest to the left and to the right -- Straniere and Harrison respectively -- find more common ground with each other than with the centrist, McMahon. For example, in the commuter borough, Straniere and Harrison have similar positions opposing a policy McMahon supports: congestion pricing. Harrison calls the policy, which would charge people driving into Manhattan, "a Brooklyn Bridge toll."

"My constituents are already shouldering an enormous burden in the tolls they pay on the Verrazano Bridge," Straniere echoed.

McMahon has supported placing a waste station in the Brooklyn's Gravesend section, which falls within the congressional district. His opponents have come out strongly against it, citing environmental concerns and local opposition. McMahon's camp counters that he played a leading role on the City Council in working with the Bloomberg administration to craft a long-term solid waste plan for the city. McMahon chairs the council's committee on sanitation and solid waste management.

On many issues, some liberal Democrats question McMahon's positions. He ran with the backing of the Conservative Party in his City Council elections, favors civil unions over gay marriage, voted against a City Council resolution that called for a moratorium on the death penalty and opposed resolutions to end the Iraq war -- because, he said in a recent phone interview, "In matters of international affairs, the City Council isn't in a position to study the issues and do what the U.S. Congress should be doing." Critics, though, say he didn't want to alienate the right by voting against the war.

And he isn't strong enough on women's issues, according to the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) and famed feminist Gloria Steinem, who both endorsed Harrison.

"[McMahon] has voted against much-needed information about emergency contraception," Steinem said in her letter endorsing Harrison. "This is one of those times when the choice between two Democrats is as clear as the choice between a Democrat and a Republican."

For his part, McMahon didn't seek the endorsement of N.O.W., gay rights groups or some organizations on the left.

To Drill or Not to Drill?

The candidates' views on the offshore oil drilling provide a kind of thumbnail of how they could think about many other issues. The debate over whether to search for oil in protected regions off the American coast has emerged as a hot partisan issue in recent weeks.

Harrison opposes drilling, because it would "not have an immediate impact on our current supply and would satisfy only a minor portion of our future need," he said. His position is substantiated by Department of Energy reports and lines up with the Democratic majority in Congress.

Straniere favors drilling, positing that the data in the energy department report is "misinformation. Absolutely not true." His view matches that of John McCain and most Republicans in Congress.

And coming in right down the middle, there's McMahon: He favors drilling, but also believes the government report casting doubts on its potential benefits.

"It's no surprise to me that Bob Straniere supports George Bush and John McCain's unfounded statements" on the reports, he said in a phone interview this week.

In his positions, McMahon walks a fine line: If he isn't branded a liberal, he may manage to peel off some moderate Republicans from Straniere. But can he do it without inspiring too much ire from liberal Democrats?

McMahon thinks he can.

"We're not going to win this race if we're coming from the far left," McMahon said, in a meeting with the Progressive Democrats, who ultimately supported Harrison. "We're not going to win this race if we're not coming from the center."

CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly gave the elections results in the 13th district in the 2000 presidential election. The district went for Democrat Al Gore that year. It voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

 

Reshaping the City: Who's Being Heard -- and Why?


Like clockwork, about every five minutes a black garbage truck rumbled down Washington Square South flashing a banner that bashed the Bloomberg administration.

Accompanying a caricature of a puny-looking Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the phrase: “Mayor Mike Only Cares About His Rich Developer Friends."

Harsh, but many community activists at a recent rally believed it.

Condominium high-rises sprout like weeds along the East River waterfront in Williamsburg. Longtime Harlem residents watch newcomers -- often young, affluent and white -- sink into the overstuffed couches of the new cafes and coffee shops along 125th Street, the main street of Black America. Owners of small businesses on the dirt and pothole-ridden streets of Willets Point worry they will lose their location, their customers and their livelihood.

All of these changes represent the new New York, one that has shifted from industrial and manufacturing to finance and services. To accommodate that shift and the population growth that has occurred with it, the Bloomberg administration has rezoned one sixth of the total land in the five boroughs -- more than the last six administrations combined, Bloomberg said during his State of the City address earlier this year. Of the more than 84 rezonings, the City Council has not rejected a single one.

Such impressive numbers, though, conceal a growing unease in many parts of New York. Advocates in some neighborhoods fear the administration is fueling gentrification by giving developers a relatively free hand in working class neighborhoods, while simultaneously protecting more affluent areas from larger-scale development.

Many people in affected communities claim they haven't been a part of the process -- their voices are left out on the policy fringe, teetering on the edge of irrelevance. In response, some planners and politicians hope to boost the community's role in the land use process.

A Changing Landscape

The gutted warehouses of the Williamsburg waterfront -- their chipped paint and cracked windows -- offer a reminder of New York's manufacturing pastime when a million-plus jobs were classified as "industrial." That hovers around a measly 250,000 now.

Our population figures, though, are just the opposite. Since 2000, the city has grown by more than 200,000 people -- many of them flocking to work in what has been a booming service-based economy. But while the city's demographics and economics changed over the decades, its basic parameters did not.

The city had not looked at its zoning regulations since the 1960s. As a result, areas slated for manufacturing lay abandoned, while out-of-scale structures popped up throughout residential neighborhoods that had no restrictions on the size of certain buildings. Builders could sandwich a modern, boxy condominium building eight or ten stories high between 19th-century row houses.

"New York has really struggled to find its way from industrial city to post industrial," said John Kriskiewicz, an architectural historian, while taking a stroll through Williamsburg's industrial waterfront recently. The abandoned Domino Sugar Factory -- which is also slated to be condominiums in the near future -- served as an appropriate backdrop to his critique. "One of the solutions is to rezone formerly industrial neighborhoods," he said.

Partly in the name of sustainability, the administration took on a massive overhaul of city zoning regulations, tackling scores of neighborhoods and about 6,500 blocks. Fifteen initiatives are still slowly going through the Department of City Planning. Generally, zoning regulates what can and what cannot be built in certain areas, depending on use. It also determines how large certain buildings can be. Upzoning an area increases development, while downzoning seeks to preserve the character of the neighborhood by limiting construction.

Most of the administration's revisions, about 5,000 blocks according to the City Council's Land Use chair, Melinda Katz, were for downzonings -- designations to limit height and bulk.

In other areas, the city has sought to spur development, such as high-rise condominiums and large mixed-use structures. Sandy Hornick, deputy executive director for strategic planning for the Department of City Planning, said the city looked for areas with good transit access that had the potential to provide new residences and services for our growing population.

The results included upzonings in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Harlem and Jamaica and others. Neighborhoods like Clinton Hill or Riverdale, Bay Ridge and Richmond Hill have seen some development protection.

Not surprisingly, some people have opposed the changes.

Clashing Interests

A large crowd, as diverse as the neighborhood, gathered in front of a New York University building earlier this month, while the City Planning Commission heard hours upon hours of testimony inside. At issue: the proposed rezoning of the Lower East Side and East Village. If adopted, this would be the 85th rezoning approved by the city since Bloomberg took over the reins at City Hall in 2002.

Residents and activists assailed city officials.

"They want to make it an island of rich people," said Tosh Anderson, an activist who is member of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

Though the plan is contentious -- dozens of activists, residents and even a City Council member have sharply criticized it -- it seems highly unlikely this project will be rejected. The City Council has approved every one of the 84 rezonings that have gone through the uniform land use review procedure (the official process that takes a proposal from a community board to borough president to the City Planning Commission to the City Council) since 2002.

Pointing to this fact, activists across the city say the administration and community representatives neglect residents' needs to make way for profitable development.

"Communities claim that I got upzoned and I'm a working class neighborhood and other areas got downzoned, because they have more political clout," said Vicki Been, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

For instance, despite the vocal and apparent opposition to the Lower East Side rezoning, including a commitment from Councilmember Alan Gerson to deny the proposal as is, the area's community board has conditionally approved the proposal.

City officials, on the other hand, attribute their success to a broad based communication effort that starts well before a proposal meets its up or down vote at the City Council. Hornick said the city starts formulating a rezoning proposal with the community in mind.

Who's Being Served?

Key to any discussion about the rezoning lies a debate about who benefits from the city's development strategies. Advocates question whether the administration's policy helps current residents or more affluent newcomers.

Take the Jamaica Plan, the largest rezoning the city ever embarked upon (See related slideshow). Even though it was approved by the City Council last September, Steve Konigsberg, the zoning chair for Community Board 8 in Queens, said his board unanimously rejected the plan, because it feared the area could not handle the extra residents nor the stress it would put on police, transportation and schools.

Though the city is required to disclose in an environmental impact statement what effects the development could bring -- from overloading public transportation to overcrowding public schools -- it is not required to respond to it.

Councilmember David Yassky, who represents much of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning area, said his district's infrastructure is not prepared for the thousands more residents that could soon call the area home. Though another bus route was proposed, it has since been dropped by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"The mayor has proposed and the council has approved a great deal of development," said Yassky. "One question that goes along with this is: What about all of the infrastructure that should be going along with this?"

Yassky and several planning advocates hope to answer that. The council member is currently working on a proposal that would aim to ensure any development be accompanied by the needed infrastructure.

The Community's Role

Rezonings can come in several ways. There are developer-initiated applications, like Atlantic Yards, but the vast majority begin at the city's planning department.

When the city proposes a rezoning, the community can get involved in myriad ways. On the grassroots level, community boards get to weigh in on zoning proposals. Their recommendations, approval or disapproval are nonbinding and completely advisory. The borough president, whose opinion also is nonbinding, looks at the application too.

For an application to move forward, however, the City Planning Commission (chaired by the head of the city planning department, Amanda Burden) must approve the project. It then heads to the City Council for a final vote.

During the latest round of rezonings, community boards affected by the rezonings have rejected only five: Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, Ladies' Mile in Manhattan, West Chelsea and the Jamaica Plan (the largest rezoning the city has ever done).

All of those developments were adopted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council anyway -- sometimes incorporating the board's suggestions, sometimes not. Of the 84 rezonings approved by the council, 20 percent of community boards included conditions and recommendations within their approvals. While city planning documents contend the commission considered these recommendations, many times they are not adopted.

Take Harlem for instance. Community Board 10 requested height limits on 125th Street at 160 feet. After a compromise between the planning commission and the City Council those buildings are slated to cap at 195 feet. The board suggested increasing affordable housing within private developments from 20 percent to 30 percent -- housing that would not be guaranteed and provided based on an incentive-based proposal for private developers. The commission rejected that proposal.

While City Council and the planning commission modified the 125th Street rezoning several times to address community concerns, many residents still feel silenced . They fear luxury condominium developers will change the demographics of the neighborhood and kick them out.

"If we're talking about public policy, you need to provide for the majority needs of the community, not for the minority needs coming in," said Nellie Bailey, the founding member of the Harlem Tenants Council and a fierce opponent of the approved rezoning.

The City Council Steps In, Or Not?

The City Council has the final say on land use decisions in the city -- one of its very few real powers. Even though it has the capacity to amend and rework rezonings, it more often than not sides with the planning commission.

A review of the zoning decisions since 2002 shows the council has modified an application 19 times, or in about 23 percent of all applications. Not all rezonings warrant revisions -- a lot of the proposals are not controversial and originated with the community. Also, city officials note, disagreements between communities and the city are often worked out before the application gets near the council's land use or zoning committees.

But Councilmember Tony Avella, who chairs the council's zoning committee, said the council often goes along with the mayor's pro-development agenda and does not take enough initiative to amend applications based on community needs.

"Right now, it's from the top down. The administration and the city planning determine the zoning," said Avella. "I want it to be from the bottom up."

The council has modified some of the more controversial rezonings, including the Jamaica Plan, the 125th Street rezoning and the zoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Katz, the land use committee chair, disagrees that the council always sides with the administration. She said she often visits communities long before the rezoning coming to her desk, in an attempt to hear community concerns. This is necessary, Katz said, because the council has only 50 days after a zoning plan is certified by the City Planning Commission to hold hearings and decide its fate.

This approval trend could be on the verge of shifting, however. Typically when deciding whether to approve or reject a proposal, City Council defers to the member whose district includes the zoning. While it's not uncommon for members to flirt with rejection as a negotiating tactic, generally those involved reach a compromise.

Willets Point, a large scale mixed use development slated for an area currently dominated by auto body and scrap metal businesses, has generated opposition from a majority of council members, including Hiram Monserrate, who represents the district. This is largely due to the project's proposed use of eminent domain to seize local businesses.

This proposal has the potential to taint the administration's winning streak. It is likely to go to the council this fall.

A Community Response

Many advocates and planners see the city's system as having the potential to include more grassroots, community participation. It just needs to be encouraged, they contend.

One approach said Eve Baron, the director of the planning center at the Municipal Arts Society and a member of the Community Based Planning Task Force, would involve providing resources to community boards and groups so they could draft their own planning documents -- otherwise known as a 197-a plan. The document can act as a master plan for the community.

"When we’re talking about public participation, sitting down and being willing to talk before rezoning happens is one thing," said Baron. "There is another thing that is working with the community beforehand to create proactive plans."

The plans, however, are nonbinding and have no force of law (one official said they do nothing but collect "dust"). The plans can also be expensive to produce -- estimates range from $50,000 to $200,000.

Baron said her coalition hopes to draft legislation that will link these community efforts with the city's initiatives to give New Yorkers more of a voice in the land use process. That proposal could include giving every community board its own planner, said community advocates.

Most experts, including Been of the Furman Center, do not think communities should have veto power -- most agree the city would then have no waste transfer stations or other controversial necessities. But they do want residents to have more clout and be able to provide their vision before the city tells a community what it will look like in the future.

Along with that, community planners are pushing for a more comprehensive approach to zoning. They are encouraging officials to not look at the city neighborhood by neighborhood, but instead as a whole -- recognizing how one development may affect another.

"I think what we need is a comprehensive citywide plan or planning framework," said Baron. "I think we just need to have that conversation as a city."

 



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