By Julie Shapiro
City Councilmember Alan Gerson started a recent interview by paraphrasing former Mayor Ed Koch.
“For a legislator to really have completed anything of major significance,” Gerson said, “you really do need three terms.”
Gerson is hoping that, like Koch, he will win a third term in office to finish his agenda. But first, Gerson, 51, has to take on four challengers in the Democratic primary Sept. 15.
In a wide-ranging interview with Downtown Express editors and reporters this week, Gerson talked about the race and his hopes for the next four years.
On the oft-delayed World Trade Center site, Gerson made several promises, including that the memorial would open by the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 with permanent pedestrian access. Gerson also committed to putting a bus management plan in place and resolving the uncertainties about the performing arts center.
Although the City Council has little control over most of those rebuilding issues, Gerson said he would use his “bully pulpit” to make good on the commitments, and his constituents should hold him accountable. But if that’s so, Gerson was asked, then shouldn’t he be held accountable for the delays at the Trade Center site over the past eight years?
“No,” Gerson said, “for two reasons.” First, he had less influence in the past because of the high-powered politics of the site. The delays over the past eight years were often related to insurance and governance disputes, not actual construction issues, he said. Second, Gerson said he had less experience in the past.
Gerson did not promise to resolve the current dispute over office tower financing between W.T.C. developer Silverstein Properties and the Port Authority, which owns the site. Gerson thinks Silverstein and the Port Authority both need to put more money into the project.
In addition to the World Trade Center, Gerson rounded out his third-term agenda by committing to: open the new park on Governors Island and begin work on a science conference center there; get a new K-8 school approved for North Tribeca and Soho; and open a law-and-justice-themed high school in the Civic Center (he said New York Law School and all of the district attorney candidates are supportive).
During the interview, Gerson acknowledged for the first time that disorganization is a problem for his office. This fall, whether he wins the primary or not, Gerson plans to hire a consultant at his own expense to review his office’s technology and personnel, and he said he would make the results public.
“I’m always trying to do better,” Gerson said.
He also acknowledged that communication has been a problem during the past eight years.
“Sometimes, people were not fully aware of everything we were doing,” Gerson said. “Because we got so caught up in the doing of it, we neglected the communication of it. And communication is important.”
It took Gerson a long time to make his points. Forty minutes into a nearly two-hour interview with Downtown Express, Gerson said he had just given the short version of his accomplishments and goals and would be happy to “go through the long version.” In a lengthy conclusion an hour later, Gerson rattled off a dozen programs as varied as homeless youth services, a South Street Seaport design charette and a Chinatown school science center with a space simulator.
Earlier, Gerson focused on the parts of his record he is most proud of, including his advocacy for an affordable housing fund that has preserved units in Chinatown and on the Lower East Side with L.M.D.C. money. Gerson also highlighted the 2004 agreement he secured from the city to build a new K-8 school on the East Side, an annex for P.S. 234 and Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Community Center, in exchange for two new residential towers at sites 5B and 5C in Tribeca. Gerson called that deal “painstaking” and said he had “a few shouting matches” with former Dep. Mayor Daniel Doctoroff before it was signed.
Gerson speaks with great familiarity, but not always clarity, on many of the district’s complex issues. On congestion pricing, the mayor’s failed plan to charge a fee to drivers entering Lower Manhattan and Midtown, Gerson gave more explanation of his position.
Gerson has his own plan for congestion pricing, which would target the minority of drivers who are using Lower Manhattan as a cut-through route. He also wants to focus the fees on single drivers during rush hour. But if it came down to either the mayor’s plan or nothing, “I would vote for congestion pricing,” Gerson said. Last week, during the “lightning round” of a debate sponsored by Downtown Express, Gerson said he would not support congestion pricing on most drivers.
While acknowledging a few shortcomings during this week’s interview, Gerson said his office has achieved results.
“We have prioritized real pressing human needs,” he said, referring to tenants facing eviction and seniors with medical issues.
Gerson also defended his vote to extend term limits for the mayor and other city officials, including himself, a decision his opponents have criticized.
Unlike Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Gerson did not cite the poor economy as the reason for his vote. Rather, Gerson said he tried to return the question of term limits to voters for a referendum, as it should have been, but once that failed, he wanted to give voters as many choices on the ballot as possible.
“It was a terrible position,” he said of the choice he had to make.