Brewer’s second term: Borough Prez touts residents’ input on land use, updating City Charter

Gale Brewer taking the oath of office for her second term as Borough President on Dec. 27, joined by her son Mo Sumbundu and husband Cal Snyder.
Photo by Donna F. Aceto

BY PAUL SCHINDLER

In 1989, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New York City’s powerful Board of Estimate, which gave each borough equal say despite enormous population disparities, violated the Constitution’s one person-one vote principle, voters approved the most sweeping Charter revision since the city became unified in 1898.

Now, Borough President Gale Brewer — joined by Public Advocate Letitia James — is calling on the City Council to convene a new Charter revision commission to bring the city into the 21st century. In an interview this week, she said and her staff emphasized that the goal is a “top to bottom” review of the “entire” Charter.

Brewer and James, writing last month in the Daily News, mentioned greater community input into land use and zoning, a more meaningful City Council role on budgeting, and streamlining bureaucracies as their priorities from a Charter revision commission. Their legislation, however, merely mandates the process, the results of which would then be subject to voter approval,

Brewer’s Charter commission proposal was one of numerous issues — including land use, small-business survival, food deserts, congestion pricing, and government transparency and accessibility — that she addressed in a 75-minute sit-down with the editors of Chelsea Now, Downtown Express, Manhattan Express, The Villager, and Gay City News.

Brewer talked about two notable land-use milestones she’s achieved in her four years as borough president and her tenure on the City Council prior to that. On the Council, she won approval for novel Department of City Planning zoning regulations that limit street frontage that can be taken up by banks and large retail outlets, many of them chains, that threaten the small businesses that once dominated her Upper West Side district. The regulations exempted supermarkets — “We want supermarkets,” she emphasized — as part of an effort to maintain the full range of services once the norm in New York neighborhoods.

Another significant land use victory Brewer pointed to is her stewardship, along with former Councilmember Dan Garodnick, of the recently completed East Midtown rezoning, which will allow for high-density development of modern office space in the area north of 42nd Street from Fifth Avenue east to Third Avenue while providing funding both for landmarked buildings selling their unused development rights and for public amenities including open space and transportation improvements. Garodnick, she said, having rejected the original rezoning plan for East Midtown late in the Bloomberg years, was a key ally in crafting a solution broadly acceptable to stakeholders.

Brewer and Garodnick oversaw biweekly meetings over many months at the borough president’s office that included representatives from the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry trade group, major landmarked buildings, the area’s Business Improvement Districts, and the local community boards. Key to the process were neutral facilitators, urban-planning professionals paid for by the city, she explained.

“That’s what we call pre-planning,” Brewer said. “Then the clock began to tick from the beginning of the process, so it was less contentious.”

This pre-ULURP planning, as she terms it, referring to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that projects at odds with existing zoning must go through before getting a vote from the City Council, ensures greater community input prior to the finalization of a plan that might then move rapidly down the ULURP track.

Similar pre-ULURP planning, she said, is underway in the contentious debate over a Midtown Garment district rezoning plan that under the city’s Economic Development Corporation’s initial blueprint would have migrated much of the industry to Brooklyn over the objections of many longtime Manhattan garment-trade players. The city, she explained, has also committed to employing this approach in planning land-use policies for NoHo and SoHo, where the borough president — concerned about the rise of big box stores — said, “we want more artists, we want more makers, we want more light industry.”

On another controversial proposed development, further downtown, Brewer continues to press — along with Councilmember Margaret Chin, Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, and community residents — to make sure that the Department of City Planning requires that four new megatowers proposed for the Two Bridges waterfront area on the Lower East Side, near the almost completed 823-foot Extell condo tower, go through ULURP.

“Can you imagine this huge project not going through ULURP?,” she asked. “It’s very hard for the community to understand. Even then they’ll be upset with what comes out of ULURP.”

Despite her advocacy for community input on land use changes, Brewer is realistic about those she sees as inevitable. In the heated battle in Little Italy that pits supporters of the Elizabeth Street Garden against the city’s plan to redevelop the site as affordable housing — with the participation of the LGBTQ seniors advocacy group SAGE and Habitat for Humanity — she said, “It’s going to happen.” While insisting, “I love the garden,” she said she is focusing her efforts on ensuring that “it has every inch of public space possible.”

Brewer is highly critical of other land use decisions stripped of any meaningful public input, particularly the controversial decision to “infill” open spaces in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) properties. There, the agency is able to move forward with development projects without winning ULURP approval. At the Holmes Towers site on East 92nd St. at First Ave., NYCHA has chosen a developer for a mixed market rate/affordable housing building roughly twice the height of the public housing there that will eliminate a playground open to residents. Though the agency has committed to building a replacement playground and devote a portion of the revenues from the new development to needed improvement at Holmes, residents have been unhappy with both NYCHA’s process and its final plans.

“The meetings were very paternalistic,” Brewer said of the community outreach the agency undertook with residents. “Did they have input? I don’t think so.”

The borough president is also alarmed by suggestions from Community Board 8 members that the developer, in Brewer’s words, “is making off like a bandit.” The community board’s sidelining due to the lack of a ULURP process, then, is all the more troubling to her.

Brewer also addressed the threat that escalating commercial rents pose toward the survival of the borough’s small businesses. She is well versed in the long pending Small Business Jobs Survival Act — having drawn up an early draft of the legislation back in 1985 when she served on the staff of Ruth Messinger, who then held the Council seat Brewer later won — but acknowledges constitutional concerns about the measure’s potential infringement on property owners’ rights. Over the last four years, she signed on to an alternative measure that would substitute mandatory mediation over rent increases in place of government regulation of commercial rents. Under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the measure could not be taken up given its similarity to the SBJSA, but Brewer is hopeful that Speaker Corey Johnson will allow for competing measures addressing the same issue to be considered.

Asked why she is not pushing the version she originally favored, Brewer replied, “If we pass such a law and then it goes to court and we lose, then we’re nowhere. We want to have something that is airtight before we get there.”

Late last year, the City Council sought to ease the burden on small businesses by raising the annual lease expense threshold for businesses that must pay a 3.9 percent commercial rent tax — applicable only in Manhattan below 96th Street — from $250,000 to $500,00, providing relief to an estimated 3,000 businesses. Brewer advocates also exempting supermarkets, regardless of their annual rent expense, from the CRT given the low margins under which they operate and what she sees as the consequent emergence of food deserts hobbling residents of some neighborhoods.

Regarding Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plans for a big push to revisit congestion pricing as a way to ease traffic in Manhattan and provide funding for mass transit, Brewer responded cautiously. Acknowledging, “I support the idea that subways need money,” and “I believe in the concept of congestion pricing,” she raised logistical concerns about the efficacy of new technologies — such as photographing license plates — for capturing tolls on East River crossings or from cars entering Midtown from Upper Manhattan, and mentioned the State Thruway Authority’s loss of millions in unpaid tolls where booths have been replaced completely by electronic tolling. She also insisted that any tolls imposed on traveling from Upper Manhattan to Midtown and Downtown could only be collected beginning at 60th St., not from 96th St. south.

On the issue of government transparency and accountability, Brewer touted the implementation this year of the city’s open data law — that she pushed through the Council in 2011 — requiring accessibility through a city web portal. To improve constituent services as borough president, she has opened the first storefront office, on W. 125th Street, which she said offers access without the need to navigate security detectors or elevators. Residents, she said, “feel respected” in that setting.

In support of the borough’s 12 community boards, Brewer explained, her office has enhanced training in technology, ethics, bylaws, and parliamentary procedures for all their members, and over her first four years as borough president, she replaced roughly half of all CB incumbents. For the first time, 16 and 17-year-olds are now able to serve on Manhattan community boards.

Brewer endorsed an effort by State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick to ensure that Manhattan has representation on the State Liquor Authority, which oversees liquor licenses, though she also specifically lauded the SLA’s chair, Vincent Bradley, for recently spending three and a half hours meeting with roughly 90 representatives from the borough’s community boards.

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