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By KAITLYN MEADE | Education, jobs, affordable housing was the mantra that the candidates for Manhattan borough president stuck to at debate last week on N.Y.U.’s campus. All four Democratic candidates appeared to be in a place of strength at the August 7 event, settling in for what one of the candidates called their 538th debate for the September 10 Democratic primary.
Limiting development also seemed to be an underlying current throughout much of the debate.
Councilmember Gale Brewer added building libraries and parks to the list of necessary amenities that should be included with schools to combat overcrowding. Brewer noted that she has been listed by the New York Times as one of the top five city officials championing parks in N.Y.C.
Councilmember Robert Jackson, who co-chairs the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, focused on job creation. As a representative of the upper reaches of Manhattan’s west side, which has some of the highest unemployment rates in the borough, Jackson said he was committed to ensuring “that Manhattan stays affordable”.
“What I would like to do is very simple,” Councilmember Jessica Lappin said, “Fight for middle class and working people in this borough with a special emphasis on tenants and seniors.”
Lappin mentioned using the 197-A process to employ “bottom-up planning” to look at things 10-15 years down the road to build necessary infrastructure to keep up with development.
Former Community Board 1 chairperson Julie Menin continued to come back to her “comprehensive, borough-wide master plan” throughout the debate as a panacea for Manhattan’s troubles, as it would mandate specific infrastructure and funding contributions for all new development, including schools and affordable housing.
“I am running for borough president because I believe we need to completely reform our land use review process,” Menin said in her opening statement, sparking the first spontaneous applause at the session.
The most lively audience participation cropped up around the topic of N.Y.U. expansion and the Council’s 2012 vote to approve it during a question that encompassed the candidates’ views on both N.Y.U. and the fast-tracked proposal to develop skyscrapers in Midtown East.
The debate, organized by Citizens Union, a government watchdog group, and NYC Community Media, the parent company of Downtown Express took place at NYU’s Center for Spiritual Life in Greenwich Village. “We’re sitting in a neighborhood where the City Council and the Mayor approved rezoning,” said Citizen’s Union’s Dick Dadey, who co-chaired the debate with Paul Schindler, the Editor-in-Chief of Gay City News.
The question prompted a round of finger-pointing as the City Council members attempted to distance themselves from the final deal. Brewer reminded the assembly that everyone on the council but Charles Barron voted for the expansion in the end and then went on to say she did not agree with the terms set and would behave differently if she became borough president.
“And you should know it’s not an open and transparent process because negotiations don’t take place in public, they happen in private…” said Jackson, who then squarely pointed his finger at fellow councilmember Margaret Chin, who acted as the Council’s negotiator for the N.Y.U. Proposal.
Lappin also turned the blame on Chin, saying, “I was not the prime negotiator. I think I would have done a better job; I would’ve handled it differently, I would have worked with the local elected officials, for example. But in the end, I voted as the current borough president suggested, I voted in favor of the plan.”
Menin spoke about lobbying N.Y.U. to expand into Tower 5 of the World Trade Center site, though the development would not have replaced the massive Bleecker St. tower. She also used the expansion as an example of why the land-use process needs to be reformed with her master plan.
Questioning each other
Candidates got to crank up the pressure another notch when they were given the opportunity to ask one question of a randomly selected opponent.
Jackson was asked by Menin about the City Council’s vote to overturn term limits giving both himself and Mayor Bloomberg eligibility for a third term despite voter referendums that showed a majority against the amendment. But Jackson was quick to point out that in Manhattan, unlike the rest of the city, the initial vote showed that more people were in favor of the extension. He also cited the lack of voter turnout saying, “I didn’t cut the deal. The people of New York voted, 1.5 million voted, out of 4 million. Those people that did not vote gave Mayor Bloomberg another term, not me.”
Menin had the tables turned on her when Lappin asked why she “chose to become a Republican during George W. Bush’s term.”
Menin, who changed political parties between 2001 and 2003, said that after 9/11, “I would do whatever I could to work for the community and make sure the community had a voice at the table,” adding that at the time, she was working closely with the Republican State administration. She said she has always been a progressive, however.
Jackson was more lenient, perhaps unintentionally, when he asked Brewer about her position on small businesses, a question which she said she “loved” because of legislation passed in her Upper West Side Council district that restricts the store-front size of incoming banks in an effort to preserve space for Mom-and-Pop shops.
Brewer passed on the love to Lappin, her seatmate in the City Council and also apparently her gossip buddy, who was simply asked to elaborate on her experience. Lappin used it as an opportunity to talk about 15 years of experience in city government, the first half as a staff member of former Council Speaker Gifford Miller.
“I made a decision when I graduated college, that making money was not as important as making a difference” Lappin said.
Menin was the only one to advocate “absolutely” for a revision of the charters of the borough president and community boards. Jackson and Lappin both allowed that a charter revision commission was a good idea, though Jackson said, “But the bottom line is this is what we have,” Jackson said, “You have to follow the law, and within a certain time, you have to act.”
Brewer noted that there have been many such commissions under Mayor Bloomberg, which yielded few results. Any change to the powers of the borough presidents will also likely be dependent on who is elected into the mayoral office alongside them.
“The charter change must include the way the City Council, the community boards, and the borough president and the mayor all work together,” she said.