By Michael McDowell
Upper West Siders aren’t sold on congestion pricing, are eager to see misbehaving cyclists ticketed, and remain very concerned about the increasing scarcity of affordable housing in the neighborhood. These were the big takeaways from a lively—and at times, unruly—standing-room-only town hall hosted by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Comptroller Scott Stringer at John Jay College earlier this month. Issues addressed ranged from a neglected dog run to the importance of impeachment.
In opening remarks, Rosenthal highlighted a number of recent legislative successes in Albany.
“We reformed the criminal justice system by ending cash bail for approximately 90 percent of all offenses. We also reformed discovery and speedy trial, which makes justice more available to everyone. We banned plastic carryout bags, and increased funding for education by more than a billion dollars, which is a big sum, although it does fall short of the amount that’s owed to public school students, but we live to fight another day. We made historic commitments to election reform by including $24.7 million in funding to implement early voting, same day voter registration, 16-and 17-year-old pre-voter registration, and other reforms that will make voting easier and more accessible to all New Yorkers.”
Last November, the Upper West Side played host to a chaotic Election Day featuring long lines and general misery in rainy weather. Scanner outages and other issues were reported across the city.
But, as if she could sense the apparent sentiment of many in the audience, Rosenthal delivered a lengthy explanation of the reasoning behind congestion pricing, a new fee meant to raise money to fix the subway by charging people who drive in Manhattan below 60th Street.
Clearly, not everyone was convinced. “I want to talk about congestion pricing,” began numerous constituents, in the Q&A.
Stringer stepped in.
“We must save the subway. We are losing hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars, to train delays and the collapse of the system. We now have to come up with $60 billion dollars to implement Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, so we have to take bold action to raise $60 billion dollars, and congestion pricing is just one step.”
Details of the plan have yet to be agreed upon, especially as to who will be exempt from the toll, which will impact those traveling below 60th Street (an inducement, perhaps, never to leave the Upper West Side—as if such a thing were necessary).
“Just because we have congestion pricing does not mean it should not be something we cannot mold to meet the needs of the disability community, the senior community, the people who teach our kids. This is all going to be talked about and debated for some time,” Stringer added.
Who will be exempt from the toll?
People who live in the zone that make less than $60,000 will be exempt—or receive a tax credit, Rosenthal stated, noting that the regime would commence in 2021 at the earliest. And the wealthy will pay their fare share, she assured.
Why were details not spelled out in the budget?
“We are legislators, we are not transportation experts…That is why we have a [Traffic Mobility Review Board],” Rosenthal said. The Board will develop the details of the congestion pricing plan.
Transit, it appears, is on the minds of many West Siders.
What is being done to protect pedestrians from bicyclists, one person asked?
“There are different attitudes and different resources. First, there are some protected bike lanes and the bicyclists should be staying in those lanes and going the proper way,” Rosenthal said, to howls and general cacophony.
“We also need enforcement,” she continued.
Murmurs of approval.
“Deputy Inspector Timothy Malin, of the 20th Precinct, is here, and he will be happy to talk to you. We’ve talked a lot about enforcement: when [NYPD does] a week of enforcement, it helps for a period of time, but there needs to be a lot more education. Bicycles are here to stay and we all need to live together.”
“I would suggest that not one more penny be spent on bike lanes until enforcement is taken care of,” said a man, to applause.
A savvy operator stepped up to the microphone.
“I have two small requests. Could somebody please tell somebody at the MTA that bus drivers should pull to the curb, and announce all stops, which they fail to do. I come from the era of trolley cars, and the reason why we got rid of trolley cars is that they couldn’t pull to the curb—and a lot of times, if you’re not in a familiar neighborhood, you pass your stop,” she said.
“And one more little request: if somebody has the opportunity to speak to somebody who is close to Nancy Pelosi, please tell her that Trump is very worth impeaching. If he’s not worth impeaching, who is? Just an impeachment in the House, and it would be the first line in his obituary!”
John Jay College nearly descended into total disorder.
“It’s great to be back on the West Side!” Stringer laughed. “The good news is, we take care of everything, so we’ve got Jerry Nadler on the Judiciary Committee.”
Closer to home, affordable housing remains a matter of grave concern, and both Rosenthal and Stringer emphasized their commitment to protecting low-income tenants and solving the city’s housing crisis.
“I was motivated to get into politics and community issues because my landlord illegally and unsuccessfully tried to evict me and my grandmother from our rent-controlled apartment that we shared. I know what it’s like to be a harassed tenant, I know what it’s like to ask for repairs that never happen, and I decided to dedicate my career to standing with other tenants and at the same time, people who don’t have power, which is the vast majority of us,” Rosenthal said.
“I worry very much that our city is becoming a place for the very, very wealthy, with enclaves for the very, very poor, and that we’re losing this aspirational middle class,” Stringer said. “Enough is enough, we need a new housing plan for New York…I now have two kids, a seven-year-old, Max, and a five-and-a-half-year-old, and I worry about them. I do not want to see this generation of New Yorkers pushed out. I am not raising these children to move to Idaho or Iowa.”
The two are working on a bill regarding Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE).
A woman in the audience was on the verge of tears.
“I don’t want to lose the home I’ve had for 53 years. I’m rent controlled. I just got a $65-dollar-a-month fuel pass-along, and a 7.5 percent [rent increase]. I am spending social security and my pension on rent, I don’t want to give up my home, I don’t want to move to Iowa or Kansas,” she said.
“For many years I’ve carried a bill to change the way rent-controlled increases are levied,” Rosenthal said. “This bill, which is part of the package of bills that we’re going to pass into law this year, will take the average of the last five year increase that rent- stabilized tenants get. So in the past five years it’s been a 1.5 percent increase, and that’s what your increase will be, while keeping in place the protections you have. And for rent control, the landlord actually has to have no violations to ask for that increase. The number of units are dwindling, there’s maybe 22,000 apartments left, and it’s the right thing to do. It would also eliminate fuel pass-alongs.”
A fight over housing laws is on the horizon in Albany, and New Yorkers may soon gain transformative tenant protection laws — even, according to Rosenthal, the right of every tenant to renew a lease. She indicated that Cuomo seems poised to agree to a package of significant reforms.
How about the neighborhood stories we know and love?
Both electeds are aware of the long-awaited—and still, apparently, pending—renovation of the Bull Moose Dog Run, in Theodore Roosevelt Park adjacent the Museum of Natural History.
And Rosenthal had a few choice words for the developers of 200 Amsterdam.
“It was treachery on the part of the developer, who combined different tax lots to make it one zoning lot, which really should not be allowed…The problem is, no stop work order, so it keeps going up. It’s a real issue, and we’re working on it,” she said.
The rest? Single-payer health care, proxy access—an innovative boardroom accountability campaign Stringer has pioneered—keyless building entry and tenant privacy rights, the disturbing retail vacancy issue, menstrual equity, and a new bill to raise the smoking age to 21, which Rosenthal believes will be signed into law.
It’s all happening on the West Side.