Here, as promised, is the second part of WSR’s interview with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. You can read part one here.
By Carol Tannenhauser
Gale Brewer sees no quick fixes for two of the Upper West Side’s most pressing problems: street homelessness and retail vacancies.
“There are ways of solving these problems, but it takes time,” she said, in an interview with West Side Rag. “It can be frustrating and sometimes I get angry, but, no, I don’t get discouraged. I do what I can.”
Brewer, 67, has been living on the Upper West Side and working in city government for more than four decades. She served as the Upper West Side’s City Council member from 2002 through 2013, before becoming Manhattan’s 27th borough president in 2014. There is a thoughtfulness and long-term perspective to her views and actions.
“I must admit, I don’t give money to people on the street, because I think it adds to people being out there,” she explained. “Homelessness is visible on the Upper West Side, partly, because people are generous. I try to be generous in other ways. I’m a little unique, because I know all the great programs, like Women in Need and WSFSSH, and I give to them. That’s how I do it.”
From a policy perspective, Brewer links homelessness to a lack of affordable housing, an issue she has been grappling with for decades and, frankly, doesn’t think this mayor is “doing much about.”
“He thinks if he just builds some housing and has a [target] number on a bulletin board…” She paused. “That’s not how neighborhoods or people work.”
Brewer contends that mental illness, another major cause of homelessness, is also not being adequately addressed by the city.
“Despite all the talk about mental illness, I don’t know how much is really happening,” she said. “I’ve been begging, advocating, for 12 years for social workers to go into the schools. Every single school needs a social worker. Social workers in the schools would be homelessness prevention.”
Does that help with the homeless on the street?
“Not immediately,” she answered, “but it helps with families who could be evicted. Social workers not only talk to children, they talk to parents. If you’re a social worker, you know exactly who to call at Legal Aid to get a lawyer. Get a lawyer and you don’t usually get evicted.”
The nonprofit Children’s Health Fund sends social workers into some NYC public schools.
Like other Upper West Siders, Brewer agonizes over the loss of beloved local businesses. It was the demise of one that led her to pass a zoning law in 2012, limiting the size of banks and storefronts in much of the neighborhood.
“That all happened because, if you go between 86th and 87th Streets, behind The Belnord, there’s that awful CVS,” she said. “There were eight stores there, including my favorite little card shop, and now it’s one big drugstore. All they put in their windows is red paper and cartons.”
Why does that matter?
“The streetscape,” Brewer answered, referring to the visual elements of a street that create its character. “I believe we’re pedestrians, and when we walk along the street, we don’t want to see huge storefronts—except grocery stores. We need grocery stores.”
As Manhattan Borough President, she wrote a letter to a local landlord encouraging him to select a grocery store or supermarket as his commercial tenant.
“We write hundreds of letters,” she said.
In October, 2018, Brewer testified at a hearing about the controversial Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which has been pending in the City Council for over 30 years. Intended to shore up small businesses and reduce the number of closings by regulating the commercial lease-renewal process, the SBJSA pits small-business advocates against some of the city’s most powerful real estate interests. It is a position Brewer is familiar with (she recently sued the mayor over a NYCHA development deal on the Upper East Side.) Still, she urged caution in the crafting of the SBJSA.
“The Act must not be so cumbersome to implement, for both landlords and tenants, that unintended consequences arise,” she said. “While I agree fully with the goals of the SBJSA, I have concerns about how effective the current version of the bill will actually be. As it is written, the SBJSA applies to all commercial leases, including thousands of white shoe law firms, hedge funds, and other financial institutions that do not need support. The scope of the legislation would first need to be significantly narrowed. Whether it should be narrowed to small businesses, small retail businesses, storefronters, or legacy businesses (long-term neighborhood businesses) needs to be studied, as does how those terms might be strictly defined in order to withstand a legal challenge.”
In the wake of the hearing, Brewer formed a task force to analyze the problems facing small businesses and find solutions. She spoke at another Council hearing this March.
“We are looking at every possible solution to help small businesses in New York City,” she said, “including legacy business rent regulation (a form of rent regulation for businesses that have been around for more than 20 years); a provision requiring that small business leases specify the percentage of annual rent increases and other mechanisms by which property owners can impose large increases; some form of required mediation to cover proposed increases; and zoning regulations to create Special Enhanced Commercial Districts similar to the one I helped put in place in the Upper West Side that has successfully curtailed the spread of formula retail by limiting the size of storefronts.”
Brewer believes another good step is in the works with regard to retail vacancies.
“We are going to get a law that says, if you have a commercial vacancy, then the city wants to know about it. We’re going to have a database. We have no database in this town.”
She testified in support of the bill, which requires owners to report the vacancy status of their storefront properties, and establishes an open database for vacancies.
“I know the value of data,” Brewer said. In fact, she was the primary sponsor of New York City’s landmark open-data legislation of 2012, signed by Mayor Bloomberg.
”Data allows us to track and identify issues, and to measure results,” she said. “This new database will identify vacancy trends throughout the city, spot areas where vacancies are rapidly increasing, and identify specific property owners and managers who demonstrate a pattern of forcing out small business. It will also be a resource for small business owners looking for new space.”
Brewer doesn’t like term limits, but they are a fact of political life and, in 2021, she will be term-limited out of her present position. Word is, she might run for her old City Council seat, which is currently held by Helen Rosenthal, who is also term limited and running for comptroller, the current job of Scott Stringer, who is running for mayor. Brewer will not comment on this Upper West Side version of musical chairs, except to say, “We’ll see what happens.”
She believes that local government is especially important these days.
“People don’t like the president, they don’t trust the governor and they don’t trust the mayor. So, who’s left?” she asked.