The TLD Interview: City Council Candidate Arthur Gregory
This is the fifth and final installment of our interviews with the candidates running for the District 1 City Council seat. The District includes the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Soho, Wall Street
and Tribeca. We have already heard from the incumbent, Alan Gerson, as well as challengers Margaret Chin, Pete Gleason and PJ Kim.
Today, we hear from Arthur Gregory. He's a restauranteur, hospitality industry consultant and community activist, as well as a former member of Community Board 1. We met Gregory at a diner on Houston Street last week. Gregory's campaign arranged to have the interview taped for his YouTube Channel.
In these interviews, we want the candidates to be able to lay out their
positions fully. For that reason, editing was kept to a minimum. We
removed extraneous comments that were repetitious or not directly
related to the question asked, and streamlined and rephrased questions to add context. For more
information on the campaign, including our interviews with Chin,
Gleason Kim and Gerson, see below. The full interview with Arthur Gregory can be
TLD: Why are you running for the District 1 City Council seat?
Gregory: I worked so hard after 9/11, especially – I'm a small business owner affected greatly by 9/11… So as I tried to market myself, everyone else kind of came with me, because most retailers aren't American born in Manhattan- they come from Italy and Korea and South Asia and wherever. So they understood the system, and I felt bad for them, my neighbors, and I helped, and then we started two organizations, one was a Tribeca organization, marketing for Downtown Manhattan businesses, and one called "The Ground Up," which played with the government in trying to get the grants changed, because it was like on the job training for the federal government, and the state and city, because they never had to do this before. So we had to show them what we needed, which they didn't know. After that I just got involved, I got on the Community Board, did a lot of committees. I had a 6-year old daughter – had a committee on schools because developers downtown jumped on the Liberty Bonds, bonds that, they redeveloped downtown after 9/11, hundreds of millions of dollars. They renovated some office buildings, made them apartments, and built new ones. But none of the politicians had the foresight to ask for the money for a school. You know, it's better for them because they have schools for the residents. I don't know who they thought was going to move in down there. Retired people are going to move to Lower Manhattan, people in the 40's and 50's who already have kids? They all move to the suburbs. It was young people, and young people started have kids, five years ago, and now there's no place for these kids to go… So I just started getting involved. And Alan (Gerson) was going to retire because he had termed in (faced term limits), so I just decided to run. Originally I was going to run against Marty Connor (state senator), then I had an accident, and I couldn't run because I was on crutches. Dan Squadron ran. He's a good guy He's going to be there a long time. He's smart, he's honest. So what's the next thing if you really want to get involved and do something? I'm at a time in my life, I'm done with my hospitality business, my real estate agency in New Jersey runs by itself… so what else do you do? You go into public service. That's why I joined the CERT team, that's why I joined the Harbor Auxiliary Police. You give back some. This city has given me a lot in 25 years. So I guess it's a family upbringing kind of thing – you go into public service. Next thing is City Council. I didn't know Alan wasn't going to run, and I just started, so I said I'm going to continue. I feel like I'm the best qualified for two reasons. I have government background. I was vice president of the Young Democrats in New Jersey, I'm on the executive board of the national Young Democrats. I worked for Brendan T. Byrne, Governor of New Jersey, campaign and Trenton. I worked for Jim Howard, Congressman from… Monmouth County, New Jersey. I worked for Ray Kramer, chief of staff, Monmouth County Board of Freeholders and Richard Van Wagner, who was a state assemblyman. I ran a lot of campaigns… down on the shore, got disenchanted with politics, moved to New York and, it took awhile, this is crazy in this city, and then 9/11 changed my heart… On the other side of the fence… I have all this advocacy work that I've done, organizations I've started, the Community Board… that shows you what the community is. Our district is – number one it's probably going to change three or four years from now, it's going to get split up. There will be the Lower East Side and Chinatown and maybe part of the Seaport in a new district. It's got to be, just too many people… the people in Battery Park do not have the same needs and wants and desires as the people in the Lower East Side and Chinatown… If I get elected, due to technology, I will have virtual Council offices – and I've posed this a number of times. Even PJ (Kim) really hasn't picked up on it, how easy it is. Council offices can be confusing. You don't have the manpower, the salaries to pay really good people. So I'd rather have two good people and then have one web master… You'd have one web site for each of the five districts - Battery Park, Tribeca, Financial District, Lower East Side, Chinatown… they can go on it and see… what's going on in government, what problems there are, questions and answers or they can ask a question – my girl or guy walks in in the morning, she looks at the computer and answers them. It's so easy and so inexpensive…
TLD: What are the primary responsibilities of a City Councilman, in your view?
Gregory: The main job of a City Council person right now, because they have no real power other than an up and down vote on the budget, having some hearings… it's almost like being on a community board. They advise. The DOT (Department of Transportation) doesn't have to do what they say most of the time… There are problems. Your job is to help them, whether they have a loud noise next door or they need to go to a government agency for something, it might even be federal. Your people should find this out. You have contacts with Jerry Nadler, with the mayor's office, with the governor's office, with all the state representatives. My cell phone has every one of those numbers in it. I can call them. They know who I am. That's how you get things done. You have to help your constituency. That's your main job. They have a problem. You try to fix it for them…
TLD: There's a lot of debate right now about whether petitioning – the process by which candidates get on the ballot – is fair. What's your opinion?
Gregory: It's old Tammany regime type of politics in New York, it's way too old. It's just stupid. There's no reason why someone should have to have only Democrats in their district and they sign for them and only them and if you sign for me you can't sign for somebody else. They should let the voters decide. Anybody who's a registered voter in your district or if it's a citywide office, anyone in this city should be able to sign a petition for anybody once and any amount of people they want, that are running. I don't care if there are 30 people on the ballot. Let democracy rule and let the voters decide. If you have to have run-offs you have to have runoffs. It's just a silly system. Technicalities – all you're doing is giving lawyers more work, more billable hours. That's not really needed.
TLD: You have acknowledged District 1 is very diverse, economically and demographically. How do you represent this district on contentious issues like where to park the large number of charter and tour buses in the city?
Gregory: It doesn't come up in the Financial District because that's where the buses are. They're lined up by the Seaport there, just hanging there. They tried to move them over by the West Side Highway. We stopped that. I was one of the people there to stop that. There's a pier called Pier 42. It's right over here by Houston Street. It's empty except for construction equipment being used by companies doing road work in Chinatown, in the Financial District and now in Tribeca… but there's all these warehouses there that aren't being used. EDC (NYC's Economic Development Corporation) is in control of it. That's where you can put the buses… You could put 300 buses there. Community Board 3 probably wouldn't like that but it's fair. It's out of the way. Redesign the warehoue so the buses could be indoors. Wouldn't even see them.
TLD: What's the most pressing transportation issue in the district?
pecially since downtown is becoming more of a 24/7 community, below Chinatown, Lower East Side, you have so many more people living there. That means you're going to have so many more deliveries. The easiest way to do it is to plan it. After 9/11 there was so much confusion down here, most of the vendors would only come here one or two days a week… You can have, deliveries have to be between this hour and that area and then you're out of here. The retailers, and the offices, after awhile it would be like the smoking, "oh we hate it." After awhile it would become a natural course of business… Same thing with the bike paths. Like Central Park. You can drive through Central Park at certain times. And certain times you can't. Have the bike paths the same way. When there's congestion because of cabs, people are going to work, they're doing business, or deliveries in the morning then you say, listen, you can't really use the bike paths now. But between 5 and midnight, there are no cars on that street. Let's close the street down. You know, they'll get around. There's not that much traffic anyway down here during those hours… You just put up some signs, and after awhile people would know. start giving out some tickets, word travels fast.
TLD: What's your position on the tensions that exist between members of the community and restaurant/bar owners over late night noise?
Gregory: There are good operators and there are bad operators. When I had the Road House on Murray Street, a barbeque restaurant and a live music blues bar, for 8 years we had not one complaint, ever, with all apartment buildings all around us. It's how you manage your customers. I lived on the Upper East Side for 18 years. The block I lived on had 20 restaurants, on one block, 10 on both sides… As long as you manage your customers everything is fine. I mean, the Lower East Side, Ludlow Street and those places, they let them blow up too fast. I opened the Orchard Bar there, it must be 18 years ago. It was the first bar, or anything on Orchard Street. What happened when we opened is all the drug dealers left. Because when you have restaurants and 24 hour delis, the drug dealers don't know who the cops are. They don't hang out on those streets.
TLD: Recently, Community Board 3 decided not to support a new liquor license for the upscale restaurant Koi on the Bowery. They said that the Bowery had simply become too overrun with restaurants and bars. Do you think anything should be done to control the proliferation of nightlife establishments on the Lower East Side?
Gregory: When you talk about the Bowery, no. They're not close to (satisfying) the needs of the neighborhood. You must have 10-thousand more people living… My brother opened Marion's 22 years ago. The only thing you had there was Phoebe's, but you had no one living there… and now you have all these people living there and they need – you know New Yorkers don't cook and they have a right to have restaurants and you can't stop them from having that stuff. Just because there are 20 restaurants on the Bowery doesn't mean that's enough for 10-thousand people because it's not. Just because the old time people on the community boards want things to be what they were – and they're not what they were. They're not what they were 10 years ago. Nothing's what it was two years ago, never mind 10 years ago. Change is change. You gotta do it right but right now I don't think the Bowery is even close to being saturated.
TLD: It's no secret small businesses are suffering right now. Many of them say their problems go deeper than the current recession. They blame a significant drop in foot traffic on many streets. What can be done to help them?
Gregory: I don't think it's the foot traffic. I think it's the landlords. You know how many cards you have to sell or how many shoes you have yo sell to pay $18-thousand a month rent. The only reason restaurants survive is that they have a cash flow. We're not making money. Sometimes we're losing money. But we have a cash flow, so we can stay open, keep paying the landlord… but the landlords are getting crazy, especially the older buildings. When they built these buildings, or bought these buildings or converted these buildings they projected what they were going to make 20 years down the line. They are 300-percent higher than what they projected. They would have been happy with what they projected, but they're getting greedy… I did a survey downtown, below Canal Street, retail in March of last year and we found there were 362 vacant stores in Tribeca, the Financial District and Battery Park. Then a month or two ago we went through Chinatown and there were 82, just in Chinatown. That's more than most towns have. That's the main reason, is the rent. It's not that there aren't people down here. There are people down here all the time… I drive around after work at 1 o'clock in the morning. There are people everywhere. That's a crock. They got a little scared 10 years ago after 9/11, but they're back.
TLD: Is there anything that can or should be done about high commercial rents?
Gregory: You gotta do rent control… Make the landlord show why he has to have that… If the original mortgage is gone, he's making 10 times what his bills are and his heating bills and his taxes are, then 'no' you can't charge $20-thousand. You just can't. Sell the building and go somewhere else. That's all. The government can do that kind of thing, can regulate that for the fairness of the community. Supply and demand is one thing. This is way over supply and demand… It's just greed. You're not supposed to put your great-grandchildren through college on one building… These big developers and landlords, they can afford to have the place vacant, just for the tax write-off. Change those laws…
TLD: What's your position on the redevelopment of the former SPURA site? How would you balance the wishes of the neighborhood groups debating the appropriate mic of low-income, middle income and market rate housing?
Gregory: I think right now is probably the best time to do this. Market rate housing is dumping. All these buildings they built with the Liberty Bond, a lot of them are in big trouble. They can't keep them filled. They don't have the workers down here, the Wall Street workers because of the recession. They're come back, but right now this is the time to push that through, because you don't need any more market rate down here at all. You can make it all middle class and low income. And that's what I believe it was earmarked for, just like it was in Tribeca… on Warren and Chambers Street… They should just do it. I'm the kind of guy, I don't care what people think. I'll say you're wrong. They need a big mouth. That's the problem with politics today. Everyone's walking around on the fence. I'm not a fence sitter. I'll just get up there and yell. I did that after 9/11 and people were mad at me at the beginning and then all of a sudden things started happening and everyone said, 'oh yeah he's great.' The more you yell and the more people you have behind you, the more things you get done. To sit there and kind of compromise in the back room, you can forget about it. Those days are over. It's a new age.
TLD: In the case of SPURA, a lot of people believe that the neighborhood groups have the political power to kill any proposal that doesn't meet their expectations.
Gregory: To tell you the truth, I don't know what can be done. But I know there's something that can be done to stop both sides. There are things to legislate to say, 'no you don't have
the power anymore.' There has to be. It's done all over. Things like eminent domain… There are powers that the government has to say, 'no the time is over, we're doing it.' They did that over… You just push it through. Sometimes you just gotta push things through, just not listen to everyone and do what's right.
TLD: Do you think Councilman Gerson has been unwilling to do that?
Gregory: Yeah. Alan's a nice guy but he's kind of wishy-washy sometimes. Sits the fence, tries to help both sides. I mean if I'd been the City Council person in 2001, not that I'd want to be, but I would have been a national figure. I have a soap box that's still there. It's called the World Trade Center site. You could go down there every Saturday, get up on your soap box, the way (Sen. Chuck) Schumer does, and get the press, you worked for CNN and NBC, they would have come… at least for awhile, and then you spill what you want afterwards. You have no power to get federal money for the World Trade Center but you have the power to get up there and say, listen, if this wasn't a Democratic stronghold we would have had that built. You guys told those two insurance companies over in Germany and Switzerland that they can't write insurance in the United States, or New York, anymore until they pay those off, they would have paid it off. And then go in, 'and we need schools, and then we need Chatham Square done and then we need this development over here done.' He didn't do it. He's not the best politician.
TLD: A lot of people in the community believe the Department of Transportation is not responsive to the concerns of local residents. Do you agree?
Gregory: Not only DOT, all city agencies. Health Department – New York City has become anti-small business. Not just not pro-business nut anti-small business. They're trying to double back now but – I have clients who won't come to New York because of that, because it's just so hard to open a small business, and that's the cinder block of the city. They won't come and it's because of the agencies. Our health Department just comes in and writes tickets, for things that are stupid. You didn't know that both bathroom doors had to have an automatic closing. $200 fine – you couldn't give the guy a week? I've opened restaurants in Los Angeles and Miami and South Beach. They don't have those problems. People help each other. This is what you gotta do and you do it. You don't do it, you get fined. They don't come in and write tickets. My budget for any restaurant, I do a project for somebody else, $2500 fines from the Health Department. That shouldn't happen. I think the City Council and the mayor have to start removing from the top the management of these agencies and change and put new people in who have a fresh mind. They're not unions. They can get fired. Just the parking along down here, the placards, behind 100 Centre Street, I was on jury duty – there's a big parking lot there that has private security guards, hired by the Sanitation Department so its managers can, make sure they have parking spaces for their managers. They have city-owned cars that have 5-thousand miles on them. All they use them for is to go back to Rosalyn, Middletown New Jersey, up to Far Rockaways or wherever they live, not in the city… and they say if they didn't get that they wouldn't work for us. In today's market? Everyone needs a job and you can get people from around the country to come work at these agencies and they don't care. Give them a subsidized Metro Card. We keep saying, 'use mass transit, use mass transit.' But all the government agencies are using cars…
TLD: Do you think the city's plan to reconfigure Chatham Square was flawed?
Gregory: Yeah. I don't think the DOT or any of the city agencies are capable of dealing with Chatham Square. We've never had this problem. They don't have it anywhere else in the city. We don't have the manpower, the expertise for it. Leave the city. Go to people in England or New Jersey or wherever else they have traffic problems like this, or go to the big colleges and get them to do a project. Go to a college that does master planning for transportation… get them to all compete against each other. Get three colleges and figure out which plan works the best. I don't think DOT has anyone who could do this.
TLD: The closing of Park Row after 9/11 made the traffic problems around Chatham Square much worse. Do you believe Park Row can be reopened to traffic?
Gregory: I think with technology today… they don't have to have it closed anymore. They have bomb sniffing machines and these things pop up out of the ground… you don't need to close it. Plus terrorists are stupid people. They're not that bright and they get caught all the time. You know they got lucky with the two planes but we were very complacent in our security at that time, but now is a totally different story… The chances of that happening again now are slim. The chances of them bombing anything downtown are slim. There is surveillance everywhere. You know, if you don't like it – you don't like the surveillance, you don't like the cameras, then you gotta move. That's just the way it is, caveat emptor, buyer beware. You don't come into this community or live in this community and think it's going to stay the same as it was in the 1950's. That's just the way it is. There are certain things that are the same that are here but everything develops around them and gets better, hopefully for the better.
TLD: Have you seen the community's alternative plan for Chatham Square?
Gregory: No, I would love to have a look at it. I think they should rip the whole thing out and start over. If they plan it right it wouldn't take too long. I've seen things, construction, you plan well, Deutsche Bank, they could have imploded that building, they could have taken everybody, send them to the Bahamas, everyone who lived within 20 blocks of there for the weekend, planned it, blew it up and had everything gone before they came back. It would have cost a tenth of what it's going to cost now… I'm sure it's a good plan (the community's alternative) but I would still like professionals, I really would. There are enough municipal planners and traffic planners in colleges around this country or the world… give'em an award. It's not that hard, we're just not geared for it and sometimes a good manager delegates his responsibilities to people who know. I don't know everything, can't know everything. That's why Obama's good. He's getting all these people around him that are good… My job is to find people who know.
TLD: Do you agree that Mayor Bloomberg is trying to make New York more pedestrian friendly. Do you think it's the right approach?
Gregory: I think it's true. I think it's needed. I'm a world traveler. You go to cities like Paris and London and they've done the same thing and it's much nicer. It really is. You don't need all this… (The subways) are cleaner, they're safer but you got to get people to realize that, to take them. You don't need the amount of taxis, especially you don't need the amount of black cars. You have so many black cars now because that industry has just cultivated all these immigrants to do it. In another year or two they're all going to lose their cars because Wall Street's not going to spend the money, the law firms aren't going to be spending the money on that stuff. But you have to have a bigger infrastructure of bus lanes and islands. Everybody says the islands on Broadway are bad. They aren't bad. The only time they're bad is wh
en you got double decker buses for the tourists. I want to know if they're getting money to use the city property as their offices. If they aren't they should. I drive around here all times of day and they move pretty smooth unless one of those is there…
TLD: What else would you like to add?
Gregory: We can do better. This is the prime area of Manhattan. It's growing so fast. We gotta make it grow a little slower. We need someone to watch it and nurture it along and I think I can do it.