By Michael McDowell
New York faces a seemingly endless series of crises, and no shortage of opinions about how to solve them. Dozens of candidates have entered the race to replace outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The first step in this race is Primary Day, on June 22nd, which will be the first citywide election to utilize ranked choice voting.
Over the next several weeks, the Rag will be speaking with many of those who are running, about the major issues facing the city—and the neighborhood.
Kathryn Garcia, a Democrat, has worked in city government for many years. Notably, Garcia led the NYC Department of Environmental Protection; served as Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation; and briefly served as interim Chair of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). During the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia managed an interagency effort to provide meals for hungry New Yorkers as well as ensure the city’s food supply remained intact.
The following conversation with Garcia has been condensed and edited.
WSR: The Department of Sanitation is an enormous agency with lots of moving parts that provides essential services to millions of New Yorkers. How does running an agency like this prepare you to run the city itself?
KG: The job of the mayor is political, but it is also making sure that services are delivered to every New Yorker every day. It is very operational, and it is an extraordinarily wide variety of services you have to deliver every day. Understanding how that works, and being able to effectively do it, I’m the only person in the race who has that background.
WSR: We’ve heard complaints that trash has been piling up at litter baskets on the Upper West Side. Why has that happened, and if elected mayor, what would you do about it?
KG: [Sanitation] took $100 million in budget cuts. All of the extra basket service got cut. There are no basket trucks on Sundays or holidays now. This is what happens when you take away services that are critical to keeping New York City clean. You can’t have a functioning city and bring back this economy if people don’t feel safe, and if they don’t think that it’s clean.
WSR: You have committed to restoring and expanding curbside organics collection, as well as increasing in-city processing capacity. How much will this cost, and how will you make this happen?
KG: We know that we have to expand collection of food and yard waste in the city, it is imperative for climate change. The cost of the program, when we shut it down last May, was about $21 million, so it would cost about double [that amount] as we were about halfway through the city. That is the ongoing operating cost. There of course would be costs associated with setup, but particularly as we think about converting Rikers into a composting facility, which is my dream, the ongoing export costs would go down substantially. And we would have a product that we could either use or sell within the city of New York.
WSR: Private garbage trucks have killed people on the Upper West Side, including a young woman named Madison Lyden on Central Park West in 2018. They’re responsible for traffic, they’re noisy, they’re something of a nuisance. As Sanitation Commissioner, what did you do about this problem?
KG: The private carting sector was the wild west. We brought together business interests, environmental interests, and the industry, to really forge real reform in this sector—reform that had been talked about probably for 40 years—and focus it on what the data was. If we created geographical zones where that garbage truck is only allowed to operate in that zone, rather than literally zipping hundreds of miles every night around the city, you drove down miles traveled by 50 percent, you drove up safety, and you helped labor ensure that there was proper training [training requirements for drivers were also imposed when the Commercial Waste Zones program was passed in 2019].
All of this was passed in the City Council and is going into place right now as we speak.
WSR: On your website, you say you would regulate delivery companies like Amazon to reduce congestion. How would you regulate not only delivery companies, but also rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, to reduce congestion and traffic in the city?
KG: We have to make sure that we have not just given our streets up as a free for all, which is what’s happening right now. I think on my block, I’ve got Amazon trucks parked almost all day long, at the hydrant.
Using some of our street space for loading and unloading is important, and particularly on our commercial strips, where we know that there is space for us to do that. We have seen that with open streets and open restaurants. The city owns the streets and the city can regulate the streets to balance all of these needs, from bikes, to restaurants, to garbage, to delivery.
For Lyft, and for the other app drivers, it is really about protecting those workers, as well as ensuring that we are not flooding the streets with vehicles, and I look forward to the Biden Administration approving congestion pricing moving forward.
[Note: The Trump Administration stalled the implementation of congestion pricing in 2019, and federal action is required if the program is to move forward.]
WSR: You support piloting residential parking permits. How much should a residential parking permit cost on the Upper West Side?
KG: I have not done the analytics to choose a parking rate, but it should be less than what it would cost you if you violated it.
WSR: 200 Amsterdam is a condo tower that is under construction on the Upper West Side. If a lower court ruling stands, the developer could be forced to take down 20 or so stories of the building. Are you for or against a developer having to take down stories of 200 Amsterdam?
KG: If they violated the rules, or played very fast and loose with the rules for height and bulk, then they absolutely should be forced to bring it down. You can’t manipulate zoning in your favor. You have to follow the rules. The rules have to be clear, but when you violate them, there have to be consequences.
WSR: For New Yorkers who are frustrated about what they might describe as a “glut” of glass towers reaching into the sky, buildings in which only a small percentage of units are ultimately occupied by residents: What can you do about that, as mayor, if anything?
KG: We should have gone to the Department of Planning and changed the zoning on heights. It could have been done seven or eight years ago.
WSR: NYCHA. Evictions rose at Ocean Bay, a NYCHA development in Queens, following the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) conversion. In RAD, a federal program through which housing agencies are able to obtain much-needed capital to repair and renovate decaying developments, management of developments is privatized, and the program has been viewed with optimism by some and skepticism by others. Given the rise in evictions at Ocean Bay, are you for or against RAD at NYCHA?
KG: I am for RAD. They are only allowed to evict for the same reasons that a NYCHA resident is allowed to be evicted from any development. It is not a different set of standards. It is exactly the same set of standards for a traditional NYCHA resident or for one that lives in a building that has gone through conversion.
WSR: At Ocean Bay, evictions were more than double that of any other development since Wavecrest took over.
KG: I do not know all the details of what the underlying eviction cause is, because it shouldn’t be higher if NYCHA is holding their residents to the same standard.
WSR: The NYPD. What is your plan?
KG: NYPD has to be held to the same standard that other agencies are held to. They have to ensure public safety, and they have to do it with an approach that they are the guardians of all communities, regardless of color.
In order to achieve that—which is huge culture change—we need to embed implicit bias training, not only as a module in the police academy, but in how we judge their sergeants and their captains on the management of their precincts. What is their relationship with the community? How have they forged stronger ties with the community? How are they holding their officers who aren’t respectful accountable? The code of conduct has to be strengthened, so that it’s clear that if you violate someone’s rights, or God forbid, actually cause harm to a New York City resident, that you have strict accountability for that.
In Sanitation, if you take a black bag and put it in a white truck from a restaurant, you get fired. That is how the rules work. I also know that we ask a lot of our police officers, and I believe that they should be older. They should be recruited at 25, not 21. They should live within the city limits, for new recruits, which I know requires a change of state law, but I think it’s the right direction to go in. And then for challenging calls, particularly with those who are mentally ill, so an emotional disturbance call, we should have medical professionals embedded with NYPD to be able to make a determination whether this is like a Bellevue—a person who needs to go to Bellevue—or how do we de-escalate this, so we are effective in responding to those calls for help.
[Note: Black bags in a white truck? “The NYC Department of Sanitation does not collect commercial waste, which is privately managed. Kathryn was suggesting that if a sanitation worker were to improperly collect garbage from a restaurant or business, he/she would face consequences,” a spokeswoman clarified.]
WSR: There’s been a lot of righteous anger, and a slogan has emerged: “defund the police.” On the other hand, the Rag recently reported that after budgets were “reallocated,” the 24th Precinct’s homeless outreach unit was disbanded. How do you find the nuance, when it comes to reforming the NYPD?
KG: As I said, the police department has to be a guardian, not an enforcer against communities. But we also have a spike in crime, and we need resources in order to ensure that we are rigorously investigating those, and protecting the people who have gotten hurt in shootings, and in murders, which have gone up this year. So I am not in favor of defunding the police. I mean, all agencies probably will have to do be thinned out a little bit, but I want to keep our patrol strength.
The other thing is, moving units from one agency to another agency doesn’t actually change the money. The real question is, what do you want them to do, and how do you want them to do it? Rather than, I’m just going to change who’s signing the paychecks of this particular group.
We need to have public safety in order to have an economy that can grow. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. You didn’t take the subway after eight o’clock at night, because it was too dangerous. We can’t go back to those days.
Holding the Police Commissioner accountable for creating the culture is imperative, and as the next mayor, that is what I’ll do.
WSR: Are you a public school parent or a private school parent, and can you talk about that decision?
KG: I am both. My kids went to public school and then went to private school, they went to private school because it was more diverse. They are half Puerto Rican.
WSR: When is it safe to reopen schools?
KG: I believe it’s safe to reopen schools now.
More information about Kathryn Garcia may be found here. Conversations with mayoral hopefuls will be published on a regular basis until the June primary. More information about how to vote is here.
She’s got my vote. We need a mayor who knows how to run the city less than we need an ideologue. Garcia did a splendid job modernizing the Sanitation Dept. When she took over, they were still dispatching trucks by post-it note, now every truck has a tablet on board and that modernizing was done under budget and it works. She also played an important role in the Bloomberg administration, which wasn’t without its faults but which delivered services efficiently.
Private carting is still a big issue on the upper westside. The restaurants between west 63rd and 64th On Broadway push their rubbish half way down west 63rd (a residential street). The rubbish is in large metal dumpsters that sound like thunder when being pushed. Then at 2:30 am a private carting company bangs them around for about 20 minutes while screaming at each other. Complaints to the city go to deaf ears.
She seems competent, and far less left than some of the other candidates. Certainly there are worse candidates in the field, and needless to say, she seems far more competent than our current mayor. My concern is that she is quite the underdog and a vote for her could essentially be a vote for someone pushing a far more left agenda. At this point, I am more interested in ruling OUT candidates, more so than choosing one. Hopefully KG gains some momentum in the coming months.
As I understand it, that is actually the beauty of ranked choice voting. You can vote for her first if you so choose, and other candidates you prefer next. So your vote will ultimately go to the most viable of the candidates you rank near the top, rather than being a “wasted vote” as votes for less strong candidates historically were.
I am strongly in favor of ranked choice voting, but it is going to be challenging this year when there are so many candidates for mayor. It will work more effectively in a less congested race like the one to replace Helen Rosenthal.
These are excellent questions WSR – thank you for this interview and I hope you ask these same questions of every candidate so we can compare their answers (or evasions). You’ll notice Ms. Garcia did not answer what she would do about trash piling up – only why it is a problem.
Now I see that this interview was “condensed and edited” so apologies to Ms. Garcia if she did provide an answer to the question of how she would handle the trash piling up at UWS bins.
Re: 200 Amsterdam. If the developer is (ultimately) found to have violated the “clear rules” – why not just impose a financial penalty so steep as to deter future violations? For example, 150% of the profits associated with those floors.
Especially in this budget-constrained environment, it seems like a better solution than another year of demolition, noise, pollution and traffic congestion in the area.
I don’t understand her comment that her kids went to a private school because it is more diverse.
NYC public schools- with a few exceptions- are generally very diverse.
Wealthy NYers send their kids to private schools because they are more homogeneous than public schools.
reply to Otis:
middle schools on the Upper West Side have become extremely segregated. In addition, the 3 top “testing” high schools are segregated, especially with regard to Blacks and Hispanics. i don’t know what district she is in but it’s possible that a private school would be more ethnically diverse than some public schools.
Public school segregation on the UWS is a point of shame for NYC. Chancellor Carranza has been trying to do something about this and has been greeted with invective from some upper middle class parents.
@Bruce – Carranza has not been trying to do anything about segregation. All he has been doing is vilifying white mc/umc parents.
reply to Beth:
that’s a slander and a lie. You can easily google his desegregation plans. The segregation of schools, particularly on the UWS, is shameful. Carranza has worked to end this.
What would your remedy to middle school “segregation” be? Keeping in mind that the district is quite “segregated” already in terms of housing patterns.
All things being equal (which they are not), people want their kids close to home. So much as families in the lower part of D3 don’t want their kids going far away, families in the northern part of the district don’t want to travel far either.
Imposing do-gooderism on families in Harlem to ship their kids 50+ blocks south might not make those families happy. But does anyone ask their opinions?
reply to Juan:
1) you know full well that segregation of middle schools on the UWS is in large part due to “screening.”
2) The Black and Hispanic parents w/i District 3 (which includes a slice of Harlem) have spoken out clearly in favor of desegregation, including through their elected representatives on the CEC. Or don’t they count?
3) calling the fight to desegregate the public schools “do-gooderism” is appalling. Brown v. Board of Ed was over 65 years ago. School segregation is at the heart of racial disparities. Isn’t it time we ended it? The vast majority of NYers of all ethnicities have had enough.
I worked with Kathryn for four years when we were at DEP. I found her to be inquisitive and interested in our operations, open to many sides of an issue before making her decision on how to proceed, and had a nice touch with allocating resources across DEPs diverse missions. She also maintains cordial,but businesslike relations with the workforce. I believe she would make an excellent Mayor, focused on service and not on ideology. She is a great choice for the issues faced by New York City while it recovers from the pandemic.
Agree with her on school opening now!
Not so much in agreement on the police.
And her kids doing both public and private schools is a bit strange.
But overall, a huge improvement over comrade mayor diBlaze, so right now she’s got my vote.
As an upper west sider looking to start a family, the problem with housing in our neighborhood isn’t “too many glass towers” but the a neighborhood that has become completely unaffordable for young families. The anti-development policies pursued for the last 40 years have completely failed. I wish the Rag would take a look at what every expert on housing economics has come to agree on – the restrictions on housing supply in our most desirable neighborhoods have created a housing crisis. We should be focusing on how we can build more housing, not focused on how to block housing.
I’d never heard of Kathryn Garcia, so thanks for the introduction. She seems to be a serious candidate.
The reader comments too were excellent and I learned from them as well.
I am impressed by KB. I hope she gets enough support to become a viable choice
Thanks WSR for what looks to be a very informative and useful series. There are so many candidates that your information is very valuable.
Besides the excellent questions and answers, this profile seems to have inspired the best among WSR readers. Comments, for once, were largely intelligent and respectful. I usually avoid the comment section since it’s too often infected by snark.
At this time and given the mayor we have endured for the last two terms, “The Lady Who Knows How to Do Things” seems like the obviously ideal choice. I cannot understand why she has not gained more traction in this race.