Volume 22, Number 14 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 14 - 20, 2009
Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel
LEFT PHOTO: Pete Gleason, right, criticized Councilmember Alan Gerson, center, repeatedly Monday night at a First District City Council candidates’ forum sponsored by Downtown Express and The Villager. At left, is PJ Kim, one of the other five Democratic candidates in the race who participated in the forum at Pace University. RIGHT PHOTO: Margaret Chin makes a point at the forum at Pace University. At right is candidate Arthur Gregory. About 150 people came to the debate Monday night.
Gleason spars with Gerson at candidates’ forum
By Julie Shapiro
The five candidates for Lower Manhattan’s City Council seat postured and prodded each other during a two-hour debate Monday night, but no clear winner emerged.
The debate, run by Downtown Express and The Villager, both owned by Community Media, brought all five candidates to the same stage for the first time, before a capacity crowd of about 150 at Pace University. The Democratic primary is Sept. 15.
At the debate, each candidate emerged true to form, displaying the traits their followers have grown to expect. Eight-year incumbent Councilmember Alan Gerson touted his experience; Pete Gleason attacked Gerson’s record and called for a new approach; Margaret Chin cited her long history of fighting for affordable housing; PJ Kim remained calm and looked for consensus; and Arthur Gregory adopted a casual, common sense approach, getting the audience to laugh at his jokes.
Gleason jumped into attack mode in his opening statement, setting the tone for exchanges with Gerson that grew increasingly heated. Gleason hammered Gerson on affordable housing, overcrowded schools and the World Trade Center site and charged that “Nothing has happened in these areas over the last eight years.”
When Gleason said not a single new school had been built in Lower Manhattan during Gerson’s tenure, Gerson fired back, listing Millennium High School, the four small high schools in the Seward Park building and others.
Gleason responded that credit for those schools was due to former Councilmember Kathryn Freed, whose term ended at the beginning of 2002. Gerson’s supporters booed Gleason in response. In 2004, Gerson secured an agreement with then Dep. Mayor Dan Doctoroff, in which the city committed to building a school annex for P.S. 234 and set aside money to build an east side K-8school, which is now under construction on Spruce St.
Several of the candidates unveiled new positions at the debate. Chin suggested altering the current plan for the World Trade Center, which calls for five office towers, three of which would need massive public financing to get underway.
“We need to determine what’s going to be built there,” Chin said. “No, we don’t want any more tall office building there. Let’s use the resource there, build the memorial and build a park, build housing, build school, and that’s what we want to spend our tax dollar on.”
Another novel suggestion came from Gleason, who said the problems at the World Trade Center could be eliminated by disbanding the bi-state Port Authority, which owns the site.
“We’ve seen the deplorable job they’ve done at the World Trade Center site,” Gleason said. “And I have to be honest as a lifelong New Yorker, I resent folks from New Jersey coming into my town, telling me how to do things at the World Trade Center site.”
Gerson’s four opponents criticized the councilmember for not using his Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Committee to hold the Port Authority and other government agencies accountable.
Gerson countered that he has achieved results by getting the big players on many Downtown projects to testify at his hearings. He also credited his committee with the city’s decision to fully fund a rebuilt Fiterman Hall, although last year the mayor said his frequent foe, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, deserved the credit.
During Monday’s debate, which lasted nearly two hours, the audience often interrupted the candidates with applause, hisses and boos. Occasionally, the attendees voiced their opinions before giving the candidates a chance to respond. When the candidates were asked if they would support charging most drivers a fee for entering Lower Manhattan and Midtown, many in the audience shouted “No!”
Kim, Gregory and Chin all said yes, provided they could add some caveats. Gleason and Gerson said no, an agreement so rare that they shook hands over it. Gerson’s answer was surprising because he voted in favor of the mayor’s congestion pricing bill last year. In a phone interview, he said he now opposes fees on most drivers, but would back a plan that would use technology to target a minority of drivers, such as ones passing through Lower Manhattan quickly.
It was a different vote of Gerson’s that drew the most censure at the debate: his support last year for extending term limits for the mayor and other city officials, including himself. All four of Gerson’s opponents said the decision should have gone back to the voters for a referendum. In the past, Gerson had opposed a City Council change to the term limit law.
Gleason criticized Gerson as “a patsy of the mayor” and said, “We need someone who’s going to stand up to the mayor.”
Gerson defended his vote by repeating an argument he has made in the past: that he sponsored legislation to force a referendum, but that when that legislation failed, he felt democracy was best served by giving voters more options on the ballot.
The candidates found several points of agreement during Monday’s debate. They all criticized New York University’s dramatic 2031 expansion plan, which would add 3 million square feet to their Village campus, mostly near Union Square. The candidates called on N.Y.U. to be a better neighbor Gleason suggested they build elementary seats, which are in greater demand than college seats Downtown and find an alternative expansion site elsewhere.
Gerson’s opponents also agreed that the designs for Washington Square Park should have included more community input. Gerson said he negotiated a compromise on the park’s design that was better than the Parks Dept.’s original plan.
When the topic turned to education, the candidates were reluctant to say who should get preference at the two new middle schools that will open Downtown as soon as 2010. Chin was the strongest voice for giving preference at the middle schools not just to students who live below Canal St. on the west side and below the Brooklyn Bridge on the east side, but also to students who live in Chinatown. Gerson and Kim advocated for choice and inclusion as well, though less specifically.
The candidates all agreed that something needs to happen at the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, which has sat untouched for decades after the city used eminent domain to claim it. Gerson hopes to interest cultural tenants in the site and recently gave a tour to “Little Stevie” Van Zandt, the longtime member of Bruce Springsteen’s band and former “Sopranos” star.
Everyone wants to see affordable housing on the site, but Chin was the only one to say the site should not have any market-rate housing, and the commercial space, too, should be subsidized.
During the debate, as during her campaign, Chin frequently focused on affordable housing and issues facing Chinatown and low-income residents. Asked how she would address the needs of other neighborhoods, and in particular the district’s wealthier residents, Chin spoke mostly about the need for affordable housing throughout the district.
Chin is the only woman running for the seat and pointed out that the City Council could use more diversity, as only 17 of the 51 members are female. There is also only one Asian in the Council.
During the debate, Kim frequently pointed out areas of agreement with his opponents. He espoused middle-of-the-road opinions on questions of the government working with private developers. On the Seward Park area, for example, he said market-rate housing and commercial space would have to be part of any viable plan.
Kim was also realistic about the limits of the Council’s power. On the World Trade Center, he said the Council might not be able to expedite the construction, but he would try to mitigate its impact.
Kim also argued for setting the “circus” of political attacks aside and focusing on the issues, but Gleason said Gerson was to blame for the slow progress.
Gleason made factual errors about Gerson at times, but when Gerson responded, he often ran out of time just when he seemed to be getting to the crux of his points.
Gerson did not respond directly to a question about his office disorganization, a problem cited by his supporters and opponents alike. Instead, he made a joke about his occasionally rumpled appearance and said his record speaks for itself.
“I’m not done yet,” he said later, after listing accomplishments as varied as affordable housing funds and free safety grab-bars for senior citizens.
Gregory was the only candidate who appeared nervous during the debate, speaking hesitantly at times and occasionally stumbling over words. Near the end of the debate, he drew sympathetic laughter and applause when he noted that he hadn’t received much applause so far and said he’d bring more people with him the next time.
Gregory focused on his post-9/11 advocacy and volunteer work, and also made some unusual suggestions, including that the city ask developers who received Liberty Bonds to return some of the money to help build schools and that the city use eminent domain to knock down some Financial District buildings and replace them with parks.
In the “lightning round,” the candidates were asked to give one or two-word responses to a series of rapid-fire questions.
Asked if they would consider endorsing Michael Bloomberg for mayor, all the candidates said they would endorse Comptroller Bill Thompson, presuming he wins the Democratic primary. Kim previously praised Bloomberg in an interview with Downtown Express, suggesting he could consider supporting the mayor. Asked to rate Bloomberg on a scale of 1 to 10, Gerson, Kim and Gregory gave him a 5, while Chin said 4.75 and Gleason said 3.
As for the Council race, Kim, Gleason and Chin agreed to endorse the winner of the Democratic primary, but Gerson and Gregory did not. Asked to name the second most qualified candidate in the race, Chin and Gleason picked each other, while Gerson and Kim did not give an answer. Gregory named himself as the second most qualified, saying Gerson had more experience.
All the candidates want to see One Police Plaza moved out of Lower Manhattan, since its sensitivity as a potential terrorist target caused the city to close Park Row to traffic after 9/11, although Gerson said only if a feasible location were found elsewhere in the city.
None of candidates like the protected Grand St. bike lane, though Kim qualified his response by saying it was important not to demonize cyclists. All the candidates save Chin support legalizing marijuana, though Gerson and Kim added the caveat that it should be just for medicinal purposes.
The last question of the night was one of the easiest, though it has divided New Yorkers for generations: Yankees or Mets?
The candidates responded quickly and unanimously: Yankees.