Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Success of Streetcar Project Starts with Community Outreach

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Feburary BQX press conference (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a proposal for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) during his February State of the City address, his administration has marketed the streetcar as a trendy and innovative method of transportation. But to keep the proposed project from becoming just a waterfront tourist attraction, the rationale for the plan has been firmly grounded in its potential to connect working New Yorkers to jobs, both old and new, and cut commute times.

The plan quickly earned the approval of 51 percent of New Yorkers, including 63 percent of low-income New Yorkers, according to a recent city poll by NY1 and Baruch College. Of those polled, 33 percent disapproved of the streetcar plan, while 16 percent didn’t express an opinion.

Keeping New Yorkers, especially those living near the planned route, between Sunset Park and Astoria, involved in the planning process until construction begins in 2019 (or 2020, the administration has not set a firm date yet) will be the next challenge for city officials. Supporters of the project hope to see extensive community outreach that allows residents to play an active role in initial planning stages. The specifics of the plan and its implementation, including the exact route, its effects on traffic and neighborhoods, and construction disruptions, must all be shaped by community input, key stakeholders say.

As with any major infrastructure project, there are sure to be dissenting opinions, and the project already has its share of critics, but key to its success will be the community planning process.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s Committee on Transportation, says residents are a key resource for planning transportation projects and must be treated as such. Rodriguez’s upper Manhattan district is far removed from the planned streetcar route, but he will have some oversight through his committee.

“Residents have on the ground knowledge about everything from walkability to how to get from point A to point B the fastest within the neighborhood,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. “This valuable information can help city planners and the EDC best determine how to overcome challenges and garner increased support and excitement from the community. It creates opportunity for dialogue and a back and forth that is valuable in the long run.”

The de Blasio administration recently ran into some trouble when attempting to win community board support for its citywide rezoning proposals meant to spur affordable housing development. While most community boards disapproved of the plans as they reviewed them, the City Council made adjustments and passed them last week.

Rodriguez thinks the Department of City Planning, Economic Development Corporation (EDC), and Department of Transportation (DOT) - the three city agencies key to the BQX plan - have all improved community outreach efforts in recent years, and should continue to engage residents’ while planning the streetcar.

“Questions should focus on where transportation has been lacking, what connections to existing transit can be most advantageous to riders and what areas are most in need of service,” he said.

Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook, pushed for community engagement when he spoke at Mayor de Blasio’s BQX press conference in Red Hook. After unveiling the plan during his State of the City, de Blasio held a more detailed event later in February with Menchaca and other key stakeholders who are supportive of the plan.

BQX routeRed Hook Houses, a NYCHA development that has been isolated by lack of sufficient access to public transportation, has been a focus of the streetcar proposal. The BQX could provide transportation to those living in 13 NYCHA developments, home to more than 40,000 people — about 10 percent of the city’s public housing population. Menchaca emphasized the importance of input from all residents, especially the diverse community of public housing residents.

“Experience has taught me community engagement will fail without involving immigrants, youth, and non-English speakers,” he wrote in an email. “Inclusive community engagement is hard work. But it leads to better results and it’s worth the effort.”

To include these groups, Menchaca called for community planning event times that accommodate working people and parents, multilingual outreach efforts, translators at all meetings, and structured public forums that encourage more participation than simple polling methods.

“I’d also like the Mayor’s planning process to address community concerns about the project’s potential to accelerate harmful gentrification and displacement,” he added. The streetcar is expected to raise property values along its route, which is how the administration plans to pay for its projected $2.5 billion cost (using bonds repaid “value capture”). It is also expected that the streetcar will lead to more restaurants, coffee shops, and other amenities along its route, potentially increasing neighborhood costs.

The de Blasio administration plans to start community outreach measures this year before beginning the formal approval process in 2017, followed by the final design stages in 2018. While the mayor is pushing for construction to begin in late 2019, his top officials in charge of the project have been hesitant and cite 2020 as a more realistic start date.

Until then, community involvement in the initial planning could be the most important part of the project, as the effectiveness of outreach measures may dictate both how well the BQX actually meets residents’ transportation needs and how much buy-in the project earns. Meetings with community boards and civic groups will begin in April, followed by larger community meetings starting in May and June and continuing through the summer. By the fall, city officials aim to report specific findings to project stakeholders.

Overseeing BQX is Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s deputy mayor for economic development. City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and EDC Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer are all playing key roles.

EDC representatives have already begun to brief elected officials, transit experts, and community advocates, including on expectations for upcoming outreach efforts. Elected officials will be integral in connecting the administration with a wide range of communities and building crowd participation, according to these officials.

After the ongoing initial briefings, EDC plans to organize workshops and open houses in large venues that will allow residents to directly engage with BQX planners. Outside of the public forum setting, EDC will engage residents on the street with interactive planning tools, like through tablets. Residents unable to attend meetings or workshops will be able to participate via web portal.

Resident input on local neighborhood geography along the planned route and nearby it is an important resource for EDC, particularly when navigating plans regarding truck loading, curb regulations, crosswalks, and locations for stops and stations.

The de Blasio administration can also use community outreach as a platform to address concerns about the BQX plan. After the streetcar proposal was announced, critics were outspoken about potential pitfalls, questioning whether improvements to Select Bus Service, Bus Rapid Transit, or subway lines would be more efficient or effective. City officials have maintained that while these were all options for improving connectivity among waterfront neighborhoods and beyond, none of them would stimulate the new development and increase in property value that is expected from the BQX. They also stress that this project won’t preclude others and that streetcars are being utilized around the world as a happy medium between more expensive subways and less interesting buses.

“Bus Rapid Transit tends to go in places that are already developed and that’s why it’s so crowded,” Deputy Mayor Glen said last month on NY1. “Here we’re going to be able to help both existing residents and businesses get connected to each other while also stimulating new development along the corridor in places that can and should accommodate additional development.”

Glen, de Blasio, and others have also said that the BQX is something the city can do on its own, without MTA approval (the MTA is a state authority, controlled by the Governor and his appointed chair.)

Other concerns include subway connections, financing the project, and fare integration. Ben Fried, editor-in-chief of Streetsblog, noted that the proposed route does not include stops near J/M/Z trains and is two to three “long” blocks away from any L train stops. He also questioned the financial plan for BQX’s estimated cost of $2.5 billion.

“The properties the streetcar will serve are already getting developed. (Have you been to the waterfront lately?) The real estate doesn’t need an extra push from a streetcar with poor connections to the subway,” Fried wrote in a Streetsblog post. “If the project is funded by skimming property tax revenue that would have been collected anyway, that’s a plain old subsidy that comes at the cost of other public priorities in the city budget.”

Amid the criticism, the de Blasio administration promoted the BQX with at least five different media releases and the press conference in Red Hook, not to mention multiple appearances by Glen and others on TV and in front of live audiences. The press releases included praise and support from elected officials, CEOs, and others. There are statements from government leaders in other American cities with successful streetcars, like Portland, OR, where a streetcar route provides transportation to almost one-third of the city’s jobs and has stimulated $4.5 billion of new property development.

The proposed route of New York City’s streetcar, estimated to be up and running by 2024, will stretch 16 miles between Astoria and Sunset Park, serving more than 400,000 people in the neighborhoods along the East River, according to city estimates. The mayor’s office projects that commute times between underserved residential areas and employment centers, like Downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, will be shortened significantly, some even cut in half. During his press conference on the subject, Mayor de Blasio estimated that the 20-minute streetcar ride from Red Hook to DUMBO will save commuters an average of five hours per week.

The fare will be pegged to that of a Metrocard ride (currently $2.75), but integration with the MTA fare system is a major question mark that city officials say they are beginning to explore. The BQX will be city-run mass transit, as opposed to the subways and buses run by the state authority. Along with a new ferry system and Citi Bike expansion, de Blasio is making it clear that he is trying to supplement MTA offerings with city-run projects.

To de Blasio, the BQX is not only a project to propel low-income and working-class residents forward as their waterfront neighborhoods continue to develop, but an investment in the future of the city. At the press conference in Red Hook, the mayor noted that the city is stretching its economic centers to include more than Wall Street and Manhattan’s traditional industries. He envisioned the streetcar as key to a burgeoning “five-borough economy” that uses all of New York’s industries, resources, and neighborhoods to their full potential.

“We’re going to make this change to meet the 21st century reality and make this city work better for everyone,” he said. “The next great step towards creating that five-borough economy, towards creating opportunity and addressing income inequality, towards making this extraordinary engine that is the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront all it could be — that next great step is the Brooklyn-Queens Connector.”

But advocates and analysts maintain that the BQX will not be fully advantageous to residents and industries along the waterfront unless community members play an active role throughout the planning process.

“The BQX could be wonderful. I’ve seen street-level rail work well in other settings,” said Council Member Menchaca. “But, at the moment — great renderings notwithstanding — we have what should be the beginning of a conversation with residents, not a finalized plan to which people should merely react.”

by Carmen Russo, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette @carmenjrusso

Citing Success Academy Experiences, Parents Tell Cuomo to Increase Charter Accountability

cuomo charters

Gov. Cuomo at a 2014 charter school rally (via The Governor's Office on flickr) 

Five New York City parents are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to withdraw funding and increase oversight of charter schools as a response to what they say is systemic mistreatment of children, particularly their own, by the Success Academy charter school network.

In an open letter to the governor, four parents of former Success Academy students, and one whose child is still enrolled in the network, criticize Success Academy’s disciplinary policies and say its practices are “discriminatory against students with special needs.”

The letter is being hand-delivered Friday morning to the governor’s office in Albany, it was shared with Gotham Gazette in advance. It is the latest in an ongoing, intense public debate over the practices of the controversial charter network, which has seen a series of troubling incidents come to light amid longtime concerns over its strict approach to discipline, suspension rates, and focus on test preparations.

Success Academy was founded by former City Council Member Eva Moskowitz in 2006. It is the largest charter school network in the city, with approximately 11,000 students in 34 schools across the city, in each borough except Staten Island. It also has seven new schools opening in August. Success students, or scholars as they are known in the network’s parlance, perform remarkably well on standardized tests, leading to many accolades and repeated questions about Moskowitz’s “secret sauce.”

But, the network has also faced much criticism for its harsh discipline policies and heavy emphasis on testing. Last year, the New York Times reported that a Success Principal had created a ‘Got to Go’ list to push out underperforming students. Then, last month, the Times released a video that showed a Success teacher scolding and publicly humiliating a first-grade student in front of the rest of her class. The network is also the focus of at least two federal lawsuits that were filed recently.

In face of this criticism, Moskowitz has time and again cited the network’s high performance on standardized tests compared to traditional district schools. While apologizing she has said reported incidents are isolated and not indicative of network-wide problems. She has worn the lawsuits as a badge of honor and said she is tired of apologizing.

The parents who wrote the letter disagree about whether there are systemic problems at Success Academy. “Despite what CEO Eva Moskowitz says, the targeting and pushing out of students, specifically our own, is not an anomaly within this organization,” their letter states.

The parents cite instances where their children were routinely suspended, singled out, and shamed or excluded from field trips. They say Success often called them midday to pick up their children without reporting these events as suspensions. And, they claim Success Academy retaliated by calling the Administration for Children’s Services on them when they spoke out against these practices.

“Because of this ongoing mistreatment of our children, several of us have lost our jobs or had to drop out of school,” they write in the letter. The missive and its demands to Gov. Cuomo come amid budget negotiations when funding for charter schools is being debated. Recent state budgets have been good to the charter school sector, which Cuomo has been allied with for years. Cuomo has appeared to distance himself a bit from charters, but is still seen as an ally.

The letter is signed by Fatima Geidi, former parent, Success Academy Upper West; Shanna Charles, former parent, Success Academy Bed-Stuy 2; Shaniece Givens, former parent, Success Academy Fort Greene; Elizabeth Eloheim, former parent, Success Academy Harlem 1; Katie Jackson, parent, Success Academy Harlem 2.

On Wednesday, Politico New York reported that a memo was circulated by the Success Academy legal team to all network staffers which seemed to show how the network is dealing with parents and the recent storm of negative attention. The memo lists mistakes which staff members should avoid, including one, “Letting parents get away with threats to go to the press/police/elected official.”

"If a parent makes this threat, contact advisory. Advisory can help diffuse this situation," the memo says. "But we cannot let parents 'get away' with these threats. Feel confident in pushing back on these and telling parents that threats are not a productive way to resolve conflict or build the relationship."

The parents who have written to the governor appear to have given up on the relationship. They are calling on the governor to hold Success Academy, and by extension all charter schools, accountable by supporting a state Assembly proposal to create a code of conduct for charters and to have schools provide annual discipline reports.

The letter also insists that the state should not increase funding for charters, either through the governor’s own initiatives or those proposed by the state Senate in its one-house budget. In his January State of the State address, Cuomo called for increasing per-pupil state aid to charters, which amounts to roughly $27 million. He also proposed a $63 million increase in supplemental tuition aid at charter schools. Charters have been calling for increased funding for years, including to up the per-pupil levels to match traditional public schools.

A Success Academy spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

At a recent event at New York Law School, Moskowitz defended her network. Addressing the issue of discipline, she said, “The truth of the matter is safety is the number one reason parents want out of the district schools, and we believe that our first obligation is for the safety of the children. There’s no learning that can occur if we aren’t able to guarantee that. So we have a no-nonsense, nurturing approach to discipline.”

The parents who’ve written to the governor say otherwise. “At a time like this, we need to invest in schools that hold our children up and value all of their potential and not schools that see children and families as disposable,” the letter states. “Eva Moskowitz has been criminalizing our children and ostracizing our families and we need the state to investigate and hold them accountable. No rewards for schools that do not play by the rules.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Homeless Young Adults Can Fall through a Crack in Shelter System


Julie Laurence, Chief Program Officer at Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) with one of their members at their drop-in center. (Photo by City Limits/Adi Talwar)

Turning 21 is a milestone with a different meaning for a homeless youth in New York. When that day arrives, he or she usually must leave the city's youth shelter system, and they also lose many essential services. If they haven't found permanent housing on their own, they are forced back out onto the street. They can go into the large adult shelter system, but most youth don't feel safe mixed into the general adult population. Yet the city's supportive housing and the new LINC housing program are accessible only through shelters, meaning young people can miss out.

"The youth population is not provided with anywhere near enough resources to prevent them from becoming chronically homeless adults," says Craig Hughes, Assistant Director of Resource Counseling at Safe Horizon's Streetwork Project. "Without access to housing subsidies provided by the City, as well as resources such as public housing and consistent access to supportive housing, far too many homeless young people are at significant risk for violence, abuse and exploitation."

Read more at City Limits

Four Decades of Dedication: City Limits’ Story


Tom Robbins and Annette Fuentes, City Limits' editing team in the early 1980s, in the magazine's offices. (photo courtesy of City Limits/Brian Patrick O'Donohue)

Since its start 40 years ago this month, City Limits has published millions of words about hundreds of topics and survived thanks to the smarts and sacrifice of dozens of journalists. The history below, combining an essay my predecessor Alyssa Katz wrote on the occasion of our 30th anniversary with my own update on the past 10 years, doesn't pretend to capture all the people and projects that made City Limits what it is. Hopefully, however, it does give a sense of where City Limits came from, the changes it has seen and the values that continue to drive our journalism four decades in. –Jarrett Murphy.

1976-1979: A Mission Begins

The Saving of 414 West 48th Street

What is Redlining? (Answer: Redlining is a white collar crime.)

South Bronx Snubbed on Redevelopment Plan

The headlines were forceful, printed in capital letters. They came from a publication that spoke to its times.

In 1976, New York City's neighborhoods were facing crushing challenges unlike any they had seen before. The city's fiscal crisis had left New York with few resources and a growing sense of doom. In many neighborhoods, arson and abandonment of apartment buildings were becoming everyday occurrences, as some property owners determined that their real estate was worth more in insurance proceeds than it was for its rental income. By the summer of 1977, more than 20,000 buildings in New York would be abandoned. At the end of that year the city owned 6,000 buildings and was poised to foreclose on 25,000 more.

Read more about this era and several others leading to present day and the future, at City Limits

After Iowa: Debates & Voting Dates Until New York

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Gov. Cuomo votes (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

"There's a lot of states ahead," Mayor Bill de Blasio said on MSNBC late Monday night from Iowa, where he spent the weekend campaigning for Hillary Clinton in her bid to become the Democratic nominee and next President of the United States.

And de Blasio is right - there are 49 more states and the District of Columbia to vote before the primary season is over. New York will be the 37th state to hold a vote when April 19 comes around.

As de Blasio spoke, it was still unclear if Clinton or Bernie Sanders had prevailed in the first vote of the primary - Iowa caucus goers split down the middle between the two - with Martin O'Malley garnering a few votes and deciding to suspend his campaign.

On the Republican side, Ted Cruz won, with Donald Trump coming in second and Marco Rubio third.

It is unclear whether there will still be a race on either side of the aisle when voting comes to New York. The Republican field has a lot of winnowing to do and the two remaining Democrats could be in for a long slog - but, April 19 is a long way away.

Next up, New Hampshire. Primary voting there will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Before the New Hampshire primary, though, each party will hold another debate - the Democrats on Thursday, Feb. 4 and the Republicans on Saturday, Feb. 6. The details of the Democratic debate are still being negotiated as it was a late addition to the schedule - the Democrats have been criticized for a limited number of debates and for holding several on weekend nights.

The Clinton and Sanders campaigns have reportedly agreed to add four additional debates to the two that still remain on the original schedule (those are still set for Feb. 11 and March 9). Other than this week's in New Hampshire, the other three have not been given dates.

On the Republican side, there are debates set for Feb. 6, 13, and 26; as well as for March 10. There could always be others added, of course.

As for the votes to take place leading up to New York, 34 states will have held either caucus or primary votes for both major parties, while two states - North Dakota and Kentucky - will have only held their Republican vote, with their Democratic vote coming later in the spring. The calendar is below.

Keep in mind that there are actually four election days in New York this year: presidential primary on April 19, followed by congressional primaries in June, state-level primaries in September, and the November Election Day.

The presidential primary calendar (if no party is noted, both major party votes will occur the same day):

Feb. 9
New Hampshire

Feb. 20
Nevada caucus (D)
South Carolina (R)
Washington caucus (R)

Feb. 23
Nevada caucus (R)

Feb. 27
South Carolina (D)

March 1
Alaska caucus (R)
Colorado caucus
Minnesota caucus
North Dakota caucus (R)
Wyoming caucus (R)

March 5
Kansas caucus
Kentucky caucus (R)
Maine caucus (R)
Nebraska caucus (D)

March 6
Maine caucus (D)

March 8
Hawaii caucus (R)
Idaho (R)

March 15
North Carolina

March 22
Idaho caucus (D)

March 26
Alaska caucus (D)
Hawaii caucus (D)
Washington caucus (D)

April 5

April 9
Wyoming caucus (D)

April 19
New York

April 26
Rhode Island

May 3

May 10
Nebraska (R)
West Virginia

May 17
Kentucky (D)

May 24
Washington (R)

June 7
New Jersey
New Mexico
North Dakota caucus (D)
South Dakota

June 14
District of Columbia

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

40 Stories, 40 Years: City Limits and the History of Today's New York City

City Limits 1983 February

History is always a summary. It weaves together disparate threads of individual experiences, and some threads color the pattern more than others. The conventional narrative of New York City after the 1970s fiscal crisis emphasizes what mayors, police commissioners, developers and other powerful people did.

But that's not the story. It's just one.

Since its founding 40 years ago this month, City Limits has told a different tale—one that has sometimes complemented, and other times contradicted the official version. That's because we talked about the New York seen by people like tenants, single mothers, strikers, prisoners, advocates, social workers, the homeless, the young and others who, when they strolled the traditional corridors of power, did so with a visitor's pass.

As the excerpted stories below indicate, those New Yorkers had their own kind of power, and the city has been shaped by it. The stories are just snippets from our work over the past four decades. They reflect the history that City Limits saw and the New York it was founded to cover.

For a look at those stories as City Limits hits its 40th anniversary, click here.

NYC Health Commish Highlights Death Disparities

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Mayor de Blasio and Health Commissioner Bassett (Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

Crisis is part of the gig for the chief health official in the nation's largest city, and Dr. Mary Bassett has dealt with her share of emergencies in the two years she's served as commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. First there was Ebola, followed by Legionnaires', and now comes Zika—and those are just the ones the public has heard about. New York City is also seeing an outbreak of whooping cough, Bassett told a Thursday briefing at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

But as Bassett sees it, her job is as much about confronting the "enduring disparities" that characterize public health in New York City as it is about responding to sudden threats. The map of disease and death in the city reflects "patterns of marginalization," she told members of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media, "patterns that I am determined to talk about and ameliorate."

Among the more striking examples: Life expectancy in Brownsville is 11 years shorter, on average, than for residents of the financial district. "That means Brownsville has a life expectancy more along the lines of Sri Lanka, a developing country," Bassett told the panel moderated by NY1 anchor Errol Louis, the director of urban reporting at the school and joined by Vania Andre, editor-in-chief of the Haitian Times, and I.

There's much more to this story - read the rest here, from our partner City Limits.

The Numbers on NYC's Property Tax Non-Problem

city limits tax rates graph

When Mayor de Blasio arrived in Albany on Tuesday, he had a lot to talk about: aid to CUNY, cost-sharing for Medicaid, mayoral control of the schools and more. Instead, upstate lawmakers wanted to talk about a property tax cap. New York City is the only place in the state that doesn't have one, and apparently that irks Republicans.

The property tax is one of the few revenue lines that the city controls on its own. If it wants to raise other taxes, like the income tax, it has to go to Albany for approval. That fact is probably not unrelated to the push to get the mayor to surrender his authority to raise the property levy.

The property tax accounts for about 40 percent of the city's revenue each year, twice as much as the personal income tax (about 20 percent) or sales tax (roughly 14 percent). Mayor Bloomberg oversaw a significant increase to close the post September 11 budget gap, a move that hurt his first-term popularity a lot. As the chart above indicates, growth in the tax rate has been modest; it actually dropped last year on "class 1" properties. Since property tax revenue grows with property values, those numbers (in the chart below) rise a little more, especially for some classes of properties.

Read more about NYC's property tax non-problem from City Limits here.

Green Jobs Gone Missing

SolarCity photo

Solar City

***The following is an investigative series by our partner City Limits News, with CUNY Graduate School of Journalism***

In 2009, New York State officials said the Green Jobs/Green New York program would retrofit a million houses and create 14,000 jobs. The results fell well short. Are there lessons to be learned for Gov. Cuomo's new wave of energy innovation?

Albany Debate Hemmed Hopes for a Green-Work Revolution

By Patrick Donachie and Jessica Bal

When the Green Jobs/Green New York bill was signed in 2009, there was talk of delivering both energy efficiency and economic justice. But prospects for real progress were narrowed by negotiations over the law.

NYS's Green-Energy Loans Played Hard to Get

By Annamarya Scaccia and Brooke L. Williams

Some borrowers report positive experiences—and significant savings—under the Green Jobs/Green New York program. But others had a frustrating time with the loan program's rules and processes.

Flaws Plagued Pioneering Plan to Upgrade Homes of the Poor

By Samuel Lieberman, Annamarya Scaccia and Brooke L. Williams

New York charted a new path to energy efficiency, using "on-bill financing" so low-income homeowners could get retrofits they couldn't afford up front. But utility companies, lenders and ratings companies all made demands and decisions that made the approach a poor fit for households of limited means.

Video: One Man’s Path to a Green Job

By Olivia Leach

James Eleby turns discarded scrap wood into new tables at a Brooklyn factory. Learn how he got a foothold in the green economy.

Why a Green Jobs Program Produced So Few Jobs

By Rose Itzcovitz

Some hoped the Green Jobs/Green New York program would produce as many as 14,000, but it appears to have generated but a few hundred. People who worked with the initiative said abundant paperwork and an under-developed market were part of the problem.

Video: Inside a Green-Jobs Training Program

By Olivia Leach 

Go inside the classroom and hear from an instructor who's helping to train the new green workforce.

After Hope and Hype, Green Jobs Numbers Have Proved Elusive

By Maura Ewing

A few years ago, from New York's City Hall to the state house to the Obama administration, everyone was excited about the prospect of creating thousands of green jobs. The result differs from the rhetoric.

Audio: The New Math on Green Jobs

By Jack D'Isidoro

It isn't that green jobs don't exist. It's that instead of new jobs materializing, existing jobs got greener.

Hope Knight to Join City Planning Commission at 'Exciting Time'

hope knight city planning

Hope Knight (photo via @rorylancman)

"It's an exciting time to be joining the City Planning Commission," City Council Member Brad Lander said Tuesday to Hope Knight, a mayoral nominee to the commission at the nexus of controversial housing-related policy being pursued by the de Blasio administration.

"It's a tough time to be joining," Knight said during her appearance in front of Lander's committee, which is tasked with vetting potential appointees to several commissions. Knight, who is all but sure to be approved Wednesday by the Rules, Elections, and Privileges Committee, then the full City Council, will fill a vacant seat on the 13-member City Planning Commission, which plays a key role in city land use decisions.

The commission is about to hold a major public hearing on de Blasio's zoning plans, then make recommendations for changes before the plans go to the City Council for hearings and, likely, further tweaks before a vote. The plans, which are aimed at spurring more affordable housing development and improving neighborhoods, have received major pushback from local community boards, advocacy groups, and borough presidents. They have also received some support from labor unions, advocacy groups, and others.

Acknowledging the intense circumstances, Knight said of land use planning, "the issue is so important to this city, it's critical to the future. There is this affordability crisis that we've got here. Our local land-use tools are available to us to help address this. And so, I hope that I am able to bring [my] community planning and economic development background and perspective to this position and this process, and be able to consider these issues in a very thoughtful way."

Knight is currently the CEO and President of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a position she will retain while creating the necessary "firewall" so that she does not deal with issues before the city, she said Tuesday. Knight explained that she has received guidance from the city Conflicts of Interest Board and will follow it. Previously, Knight was Chief Operating Officer of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone for about 12 years after several positions in finance.

In her pre-hearing questionnaire, Knight wrote to the City Council that the City Planning Commission "must be sensitive to the needs of communities and establish many channels of communication."

Knight also wrote that "The strategy of zoning changes to allow residential buildings with additional density, provided that affordable housing is included, is one of the few land use tools that the City has access to in order to greater leverage the development of more affordable housing units."

While the City Planning Commission does much more than zoning amendments, that is the focus of the work right now.

With Knight there to observe, the City Planning Commission will hold a much-anticipated public hearing Wednesday on two proposals by Mayor Bill de Blasio that are essential pieces of his affordable housing plan. Both proposals are changes to the city's land use rules by way of zoning language and have been the source of a great deal of recent debate.

Many community boards and all five borough boards have voted against de Blasio's Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposals. These votes are only advisory, though, and the future of the plans, known as MIH and ZQA, will come down to a City Council vote in early-to-mid 2016. Reasons for opposition and desired tweaks to the plans vary by borough and neighborhood, but some include thresholds for affordability, changes in parking requirements, and increased density or allowable building heights.

Between the advice of the community and borough boards and the City Council getting its shot at tweaking the plans, the City Planning Commission will issue its recommended changes. These recommendations will be based, in part, on Wednesday's hearing, which is expected to be long and contentious.

On Tuesday, Knight appeared to grasp what she is signing up for, discussing her long career in community planning and advocacy, as well as her outlook on land use decision-making. Lander and his fellow committee members were impressed by Knight's candidacy and appear ready to vote her through to the full Council for approval.

Knight will join six other mayoral appointees on the City Planning Commission, as well as one appointee from each borough president, and one appointee by the public advocate. The commission is under the leadership of Chair Carl Weisbrod, who is also the commissioner of the city's Department of City Planning and serves at the discretion of the mayor. Other commission members serve alternating five-year terms. Knight will fill the seat vacated by Bomee Jung, who took a position within the de Blasio administration earlier this year, and will serve the rest of Jung's term, until June 30, 2018. She can be reappointed after that.

According to the City Council, the City Charter says that members of the City Planning Commission "are to be chosen for their independence, integrity, and civic commitment."

On Tuesday, Council members including Lander, Dan Garodnick, and Margaret Chin, praised Knight for her dedication to community planning and neighborhood advocacy. Council members also wanted to make sure that Knight would hear community feedback around land use policy. Council Member Steven Matteo asked Knight how much weight she puts on community concerns. "I would put tremendous weight on what the community has to say," Knight responded of her approach if she is indeed approved, adding that she has been "at the table" representing communities in land use negotiatons in the past.

Repeatedly citing the city's "affordability crisis," Knight also explained that she understands fear of gentrification and that the city must be cognizant of an "aging population."

Knight was not questioned about her independence from de Blasio, who nominated her to the commission after his appointments office identified her as a strong candidate.

"[I]n order to create more affordable units," Knight said, "we have to look at various land-use tools to implement the possibility of creating units. So, I think that MIH, ZQA, they're all components of the mayor's...housing plan and will have to be more greatly considered to support the growth of new housing."

During a Tuesday appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio's planning chief, Weisbrod, said of Wednesday's City Planning Commission hearing and the zoning plans, "We expect to hear a lot of comments on all sides of this issue." The controversy around MIH and ZQA, he said, "Won't get fully resolved until the City Council decides this early next year."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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