Delivered July 16, 2019.
I’m honored to be here tonight—not just because I’m a big fan of City & State, but because local journalism is important to our democracy—and our democracy has never needed journalism more.
I’m especially honored by Sheena Wright’s introduction. Her leadership of the United Way supports New Yorkers in so many ways—I’m humbled by her efforts and that of her staff and affiliates. And both of us have taken lessons about the importance of advocacy from her mother and my long-time friend, Debra Fraser-Howze.
Okay. Since I’m the Manhattan Borough President, and this is the Manhattan Power 100, let me be your tour guide to some salient facts…
Manhattan has 1.6 million residents—it’s the most densely populated county in the U.S. —and its population almost doubles every weekday, with 1.5 million commuters.
About 860,000 residents are women and girls, and another 770,000 are men and boys; 269,000 are seniors (that is, 65+); 245,000 are African American, 190,000 are Asian (and Manhattan’s Chinatown has the largest Chinese population in the Western hemisphere!); and 420,000 are Latinx (and Dominicans make up the largest Latinx subset)
14% of Manhattanites receive SNAP benefits, needing assistance as the cost of a meal here has risen 46% in the past few years. We have 307 public schools (which serve about 178,000 students);285 public parks—and 16 public pools, 80 baseball fields, and three outdoor ice skating rinks;40 public libraries; 508 churches, 92 synagogues, and 39 mosques;
….and over 1 million pigeons (each producing 25 pounds of waste a year!) along with an estimated 2 million rats.
Above ground, New York’s numbers are even more impressive: In 2017, an acre of land in Chicago’s Loop was valued at about $660,000 in 2017; in downtown Los Angeles about $16 million—and in midtown Manhattan $123 million—before the boom of the past two years.
Having stakes this big makes governing difficult. This is a room full of people who do it well. For me, one approach is trying to be everywhere and trying to know everything in real time.
For measurable success here, you have to balance the numbers game and the strategy game. For example, of the 300+ public schools in Manhattan, my office has contributed funding to 260 of them. We’ve helped pay for technology, hydroponics, new auditoriums, and recording studios. All necessary things.
But you don’t invest tax dollars without a plan.
For years, an outdated policy called “Directive 10” severely restricted NYC public schools from using public capital funding to buy students 21st century learning tools, like individual laptops. These funds could only pay for laptops that fit into a cart that networked the devices. I fought this, beginning the advocacy when I was on the City Council. We wrote over a dozen letters, held meetings, made phone calls, and penned op eds. The Comptroller blamed OMB. OMB blamed the bond raters. The bond raters said, it’s not about us!
Well, thanks to Comptroller Stringer and others, Directive 10 was FINALLY changed last month to allow the purchase of tablets, Chromebooks and cloud-based software for mobile computing with capital/Reso A funding. Public school students will learn on up-to-date tools. Leslie Schect, the Director of Technology for New York City’s Department of Education District 75 schools called tablets a “game-changer” for students with disabilities. Every day she sees how tablets are being used to give special education students the ability to participate, socialize, collaborate and learn with their peers – opportunities that would not be available if the tablet computers were not capitally eligible.
Moving on to the topic that drives us all: REAL ESTATE. Since I became Borough President, Manhattan has undergone three major re-zonings: in East Harlem, East Midtown and Inwood, and another for SoHo-NoHo may be in the works. In addition, we have initiated task forces on the future of the South Street Seaport, the preservation of the Garment Center, borough based jails and the closing of Riker’s Island, and the downsizing of Beth Israel Hospital, the protection of mom and pop/owner operated stores, the renovation of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the future of faith-based buildings, and the challenges of resiliency and the waterfront, and preparation for the census with our Complete Count Committee; and we have been asked to pull stakeholders together to review the future of the 34th Street area where Macy’s and others have plans to expand.
The island is in the midst of a massive re-development. It was intended to produce a lot of affordable housing but demand continues to dwarf supply. To give a sense of scale, my office has completed 121 ULURPs, far more than any other borough.
As an aside, walking downtown in the Pride Parade, a colleague commented that he had walked the route for decades, and in the past every balcony of every building in the Village was crammed with families and cameras. Because so many of the apartments are now condo or coop and not rent stabilized, the balconies were empty because the owners are pied a terre occupants or away for the weekend. I worry every day that our city has become so expensive that the people and the artists that helped make New York great are vanishing. It is hard to imagine the city without them. And the struggle over infill and the funding of NYCHA is just beginning.
So how do we as Manhattanites tackle all of this?
My office has pioneered a pre-planning process for ULURP applications that seeks to avoid long delays in approval. We bring all stakeholders to the table BEFORE the clock starts, to frankly explore points of agreement, bottom lines, and feasibility. The goal is to incorporate a community’s needs – education, transit, streets, and businesses – in the negotiation over how a project provides a public amenity.
When all else fails, we have begun to resort to lawsuits.
Yes, we are in court with the Mayor, the first Borough President to sue over a city action – in this case both the Two Bridges proposed development on the Lower East Side and the Holmes NYCHA development on the Upper East Side.
My claim is pretty basic – ALL large projects need community input; they need ULURP. ULURP may not be perfect, but without it, communities risk being overwhelmed by ever larger, out of scale buildings that do not address the provision of affordable housing or community impacts.
I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I have to believe that the City must comply with its own laws and procedures. If it has the right to waive compliance unilaterally, then these laws are ineffective and we will be ruled only by fear and favor.
Few needs require more planning than the challenges of an aging population. In this year’s budget we fought adamantly and somewhat successfully to at least preserve four NYCHA senior centers threatened with closure – we were able to save 3 of them.
The big challenge is to be pro-active.
We have been building sustainable models for programs to serve this exponentially growing population. We are expanding our Fresh Food for Seniors program – this past week alone, delivering hundreds of eight-dollar shopping bags of fresh produce to senior centers, including “naturally occurring retirement communities”—NORCS!, and NYCHA centers. We have grown this program from the Upper West Side to Battery Park City, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the Upper East Side, Roosevelt Island, Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood. The potential of this farm-to-table program is city-wide. So that’s food, but there’s so much more.
We hold an annual summer conference for seniors, attracting about 1,000 people at each. We have focused on brain health, caregiving and the arts. This year we will look at issues that will make this whole borough age-friendly. Things like streetscape and end-of-life planning.
I love that Manhattan is the arts capital of the world.
And our focus is both large and small. There are hundreds of major cultural institutions here and yes, we have contributed funding to 111 of them. Many are among the most venerable, such as Carnegie Hall where during the blackout his past weekend the orchestra and the chorus continued their performance in the street!
I’m particularly proud to be a founding board member of The Shed. The design alone is a wonder. As former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who green-lighted the project, said, “An eight-story collapsible arts center on wheels: what’s not to like?”
The programming matches the diversity of the world arts scene with that of our great borough. And in a big plus from my perspective free tickets are made available to NYCHA residents, schools, and others.
This must be part of our legacy – not only to host and nurture some of the greatest cultural institutions in the world, but to ensure full access to them for all New York audiences. Of our 285 parks, we have been able to contribute funding to 40 parks and community gardens.
Whether watching Shakespeare in the Park with the restored Belvedere Castle in the background, or gazing out at the Hudson River from the cliffs of Fort Tryon, we are the beneficiaries of the best public park planning in the world, and an incomparable public-private partnership to restore and maintain them (including the 24 goats!).
We should be equally proud of the new Highbridge Park and the new West 20th Street one – parks long fought for by the communities in which they are located. But again – thinking big, we have to pursue the greening of the waterfront of this island. So we are working with the Seaport, completing the Brooklyn Bridge Beach, fighting for funding for the esplanade in East Harlem, and continuing our efforts to ensure Pier 40 and the rest of our waterfront resources are planned, funded, and maintained.
Our co-keynote tonight, Christine Quinn is doing great work at WIN and at the National Institute of Reproductive Health / NIRH but our back story is that I supported a guy named de Blasio when he opposed her for City Council Speaker.
For that miscalculation, I was rewarded with the Council Committee, Technology, that was then considered the “lemon.” But I am good at making lemonade, and took that committee and built it into something formidable.
We got all city data on-line, passing the first and most extensive open data law in the country, and began exploring new uses of technology to improve government and everyday lives. It has opened doors for me to speak about the importance of civic tech nationally and around the world.
Every day, my office uses that open data to solve a host of problems, thanks to BetaNYC. We are able to track, map and compare 311 complaints to a range of other issues, like After-Hour Variances for construction. We are able to identify every religious institution that is vulnerable to development. And we are then able to devise strategies to address these challenges. Yes we are looking at A.I., bitcoins, 5G, and everything else. And we are also using something called LoRa to monitor air quality in NYCHA, working to increase broadband access in schools, and looking for new ways to expand WiFi access across the borough.
I admit my heart is in the details, and in the lives of the people we touch. I was the first Borough President to open a storefront office and it is located on 125th Street and fully accessible. Thousands of constituents have come through our door. We work on housing, benefits, education, veterans, and more. Yes, we do potholes, streets trees, raccoons in Harlem, and elephants in the Bronx zoo. We hold workshops on SCRIE, DRIE, immigrants’ rights, and child welfare. We serve as a hub for Harlem cultural initiatives, the African Immigrant Community in Harlem, including the hairbraiders, and nearly all of the area’s service providers.
We have reformed the Community Board vetting and appointment process so that ALL applicants get evaluated, interviewed and participate in real world simulations of Community Board work – these activities are scored and converted into data points used in decision-making. These reforms have yielded great results yet we are mindful there is much work to be done to strengthen and better support our most local form of governance. But to give you a real sense of large scale change – just think – 65% of all Manhattan Community Board members have been newly appointed in the last 5 years; 65% new voices, new energy, new skill sets, joining with a few veterans who are steeped in land use and other relevant knowledge. Additionally, we created a Community Board Leadership Training series to support all appointees to Community Boards, Community Education Councils, the Solid Waste Advisory Board, NYCHA Resident Associations and others. This is meaningful technical assistance and skills development in areas like land use and zoning, open data and mapping, parliamentary procedure, resolution-writing and more.
And we appoint 16 and 17 year olds to the Community Boards, where they have been a huge asset. It was my initiative to pass the law that moved the age below 18.
We celebrate the amazing diversity of the borough – co-sponsoring the Dominican Day Parade Launch Reception, hosting gallery shows for emerging Korean artists, and celebrating LGBTQ Pride with events like our recent Pride Ball. In addition, we have held over 100 forums on topics such as driverless cars, zoning loopholes, and urban farming. We have task forces on helicopters, health systems and accessibility, and we have a table at every street fair and NYCHA family day.
In addition to our staff, this summer we are privileged to work with 126 interns. They measure every single curb cut on Broadway, from the Battery to Inwood. They have counted empty storefronts and surveyed the entire waterfront. They march in parades, shadow me at events, research criminal justice outcomes and identify every local historian in our borough in preparation for a celebration in the fall and the appointment of a new Borough Historian. We also have a Youth Council that advises me on matters they are interested in. This year, they advocated for a social worker in every school.
1.6 million people and 3.2 million on weekdays populate our little island. Those of us here tonight share responsibility for welcoming, housing, protecting and entertaining them. Of the world’s great cities, New York manages this task better than any other.
I congratulate everyone in this room on making that possible, but particularly our honorees including my good friend and my Director of Community Affairs, the Hon. Rosie Mendez, who is truly one of Manhattan’s “Power 100.”
Categories: News from Gale Brewer