TLD Interview: City Council Candidate Pete Gleason
Today we continue our series of interviews with the candidates running for the District 1 City Council seat currently held by Alan Gerson. The District includes the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Soho, Wall Street and Tribeca. Last week we heard from Margaret Chin, one of four challengers Gerson
faces in September’s primary election. Today it’s Pete Gleason’s turn.
Gleason is an attorney, as well as a former New York City police officer and firefighter. He ran against Gerson unsuccessfully in 2003. Recently, he won the endorsement of an influential political club, the Downtown Independent Democrats. Gleason has been an outspoken critic of the lack of progress redeveloping the World Trade Center site.
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 questions. For more information on the campaign, see below. The full interview with Pete Gleason can be found after the jump.
TLD: Why are you running to represent District 1 in the City Council?
Gleason: I think there’s a tremendous void in the City Council in the 1st District… Look at what this District has represented historically. You have the Lower East Side which is where generations of people came to build a better life. You also have the Wall Street area, the financial capitol of the world, which is essentially in ruins as we speak. It’s going through a tremendous amount of turmoil. You also have the World Trade Center in the District, as well. I don’t see much progress in maintaining affordable housing, having building that’s consistent with the needs of the community, specifically schools. When you build a 40 story residential tower you have to expect that there’s going to be children moving in. Those children need seats in public schools… These are issues that the Council person must be on the forefront about. During the present Council member’s tenure I cannot find evidence of one unit of true affordable housing being built in the the 1st District. The most glaring example of that is the Seward Park development, parcel on Delancey Street. That’s been earmarked for over 40 years for affordable housing. It is a parking lot. That’s an insult. You need to build affordable housing, and there’s not as much as a plan. I am on record as far back as 2003… that affordable housing needs to be built. I took that stance. The present Council member took the stance that he defers to the Assembly member (Sheldon Silver) and the former state senator, Martin Connor. That’s bad policy. I understand the concept of working closely with other elected officials but I also understand the concept of taking a position, and you do not have to agree with the other elected officials on everything. You have to work with them. There is a distinct difference between the two. One is being a leader and one is ignoring the issues. We need leadership in the 1st Council District.
TLD: You mentioned the (former) Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. What do you think should be done there?
Gleason: There needs to be a plan for Seward Park. The plan I would espouse is- work closely with every union in the city, from the clerical workers to the uniformed unions… You can build true affordable housing. You can also build commercial spaces which benefit the community. For instance if a child on the Lower East Side wants to go see a movie, their option is to travel over to Battery Park City, which is difficult to get to, or to travel up to Union Square, which is difficult to get to. A child that wants to see a movie should have the ability to see that movie in their community. You could build a movie theater, you could build an entertainment complex, a bowling alley, you can build a gym for children to have- in the model of Chelsea Piers, where they can have gymnastics, tumbling classes, and you could build residential towers above them… You want clerical workers, you want teachers, you want nurses, you want police officers, you want firefighters, you want sanitation workers. These are people who are not making a tremendous amount of money. That builds a community. That is the backbone. You can put in 20-percent of true affordable housing. But I’ll go one step further. There are serious allegations that NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) is warehousing apartments because they want to privatize public housing in the city of New York. That is a bad idea.”
TLD: Do you believe NYCHA is doing that?
Gleason: I do, and I’ll tell you why. As a retired firefighter, I worked on 2nd Street between B and C. When you have a lot of people living in a building, you tend to have occasional fires, whether they’re through negligence or intentional. I’ve spoken with my former colleagues within the Fire Department. Fires within public housing are down. The city should take credit for fires being down, but if the reason fires are down is that there’s less occupants that tells me there’s true affordable housing available and it’s not being utilized. Once elected I will mandate the City Council have hearings with full disclosure from NYCHA to find out exactly what’s going on there. The bureaucracy in NYCHA is perhaps as confusing as the bureaucracy within the Department of Education. And with regards to Education. You need a trigger. If they are going to build large developments that rise into the sky you need to put schools there. In 2003 I was on record as saying the building being built on the west side of the District, next to P.S. 234 should have included a provision for a school. There is a small provision for a school but it’s not enough to accommodate all the children in the neighborhood. And other people, including my opponent, the incumbent, said ‘oh no we need a whole new school.’ Well there is no whole new school. You need an advocate in this position who’s willing to stand between the bureaucracy and the public… We’re really at a crucial turning point in this city. You don’t have to be a political consultant or an economist to realize this city is in dire straits. You just have to look around. When you have half completed buildings, the cranes are not moving, there are no workmen there, we have a problem. And it was because of the greed of the developers that got us to this point and the incompetence of the city administration not to see that this was going to come down the pike… I will go on record as saying all the bad news will come out after November 2009, and the city administration will say ‘we never saw it coming.’ It’s about getting elected at this point for the current administration. For me, it’s about being transparent, being candid. I am the person for this person that you will get a straight answer out of. I have nothing to hide. I have the benefit of going into this race with a great desire to win but not a fear of losing…
TLD: What would be the difference between the way a Councilman Gleason would handle SPURA, as opposed to how Councilman Gerson has handled it?
Gleason: Councilman Gerson needs to insert himself into this dialogue. The problem is, historically, Councilman Gerson finds it impossible take a position. People are supporting me because number one they like my vision but, two, they’ve grown so frustrated with the current Council member espousing one view to one group and then the polar opposite view to another group and claim to both groups that he supports them. That’s bad business. That’s bad politics… What needs to happen is a sit-down with all the unions in this city and say ‘we want to build true affordable housing.’ You go by a construction site, you see vehicles parked there from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut. These are union workers coming in to the city of New York to work. They leave. Unfortunately there’s no longer a commuter tax. The city lost billions when the State Legislature abolished the commuter tax. But you sit down with the unions and say we want to build a complex for people who are hard working individuals, whether they’re a payroll clerk in a city agency or they’re a nurse, or the cop walking the beat or the firefighter who lives in Orange County- those are individuals who would love to live in this city. They are the backbone of this city. We have turned our back – the historical meaning of the Lower East Side was ‘give me your huddled masses,’ we’re going to find a place for you to live and this is the land of opportunity. We’ve lost that. If we built a complex there… you will have every union on board to build it… and if some of their members can live there, they will jump at the chance. It will be a benefit to the community and you will have every race, religion and ethnic background moving in there and living in harmony…
TLD: If you were talking to a group from t
he Grand Street Co-ops and they told you a third of the SPURA site should be devoted to market rate housing, what would you tell them?
Gleason: I would say no… What I would ask those individuals who say we need market rate housing is ‘are you opposed to having the emergency room nurse who’s working from midnight to 8 in Gouverneur Hospital, living in your neighborhood? Are you opposed to the firefighter who just saved somebody in cardiac arrest from living in the neighborhood? Are you opposed to having the individual who drove the ambulance that got you to the hospital in time to save your life living in the neighborhood? Are you opposed to the teacher in the public school, teaching your children, living in the neighborhood?… There is a solution. The problem is, we have in the district right now a number of sites that, are dormant. We need to figure out what to do with those sites first, and perhaps, use those sites as an example… The economic crisis will force us to shift gears and I am on record going back to 2003, the time to build Seward Park was with the influx of federal funds after September 11th.
TLD: If you were a City Councilman what would you do to get the World Trade Center site redeveloped?
Gleason: I responded to the World Trade Center site as a retired firefighter, with my former colleagues. I live walking distance from the site. I had an office in the North Tower… It’s an insult to New Yorkers that there is not as much as a temporary memorial to those who perished on that day. It’s egregious. It’s disgusting… You just need to build a suitable temporary memorial until you can get the actual memorial built. Shame on the memorial committee. With regard to the economic impact, I said it in 2003 and I still say it. We need City Council hearings on what happened on September 11th… When you have Rudy Giuliani putting a bunker in the sky in the World Trade Center, Number 7, fueled with thousands of gallons of diesel fuel, which many attribute to bringing the building down after the diesel fuel caught fire, something needs to be looked into so we don’t make the same mistake again. When you have the fire commissioner circumventing the bidding process to put sub-standard radios in the hands of fire fighters, you need to put (Thomas) Von Essen (former Fire Commissioner) on the hot seat, ‘why did you do that.’ When it was raised in 2001… Giuliani stood between an inquiry and one of his cronies- the incompetence that ran through that administration is legendary… it’s like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight… but we need transparency in government. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you made a mistake. There’s something tremendously wrong with covering up that mistake. I find in politics the most difficult thing a politician can do is say. ‘ I screwed up.’ Not admitting a mistake sets us back years.
TLD: Recently the city put the controversial reconfiguration of Chatham Square on hold. What do you like to see happen in that area?
Gleason: When issues are raised by either myself or Margaret Chin- when either of us raise an issue- that’s adversarial to the incumbent, it’s very easy for him, in a self protection mode, to say let’s table this, and we’ll deal with it after the election. It’s a shell game that’s going on right now… one of the most egregious things I’ve ever witnessed during the campaign was- and I compliment Margaret Chin for doing this- Margaret Chin held a press conference. I attended the press conference – we agreed on the point that the Department of Transportation needs to listen to the community more. I stood off to the side since it was Margaret’s press conference… Alan Gerson showed up and bellied his way up to the forefront and took over the microphone. That’s what we call a blister- showing up after the work is done… With regard to Chinatown, Park Row- Park Row needs to be reopened. And the easiest way to do that is to come up with a plan- this should have been done right after September 11th. The city should have gone to Washington… and said Police Plaza needs to be removed from the center of a terrorist target… there was a plan to put it in Flushing… you could have an exit off the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel that goes directly into Governor’s Island… I was outspoken against the Coast Guard closure of Governor’s Island… It could be a perfect spot to have a police headquarters.
TLD: There are complaints in Lower Manhattan neighborhoods about many of the decisions made by the Department of Transportation and the agency’s dealings with the community. What’s your assessment?
Gleason: Most of the changes that have been implemented have lacked appropriate community input. Bike lanes that don’t allow for emergency vehicles to make the turn- bad idea. Bike lanes that create problems for deliveries for small businesses- a bad idea. Bike lanes that are implemented dangerously- bad idea. I find it curious that the implementation of this is strictly downtown. I don’t see these bike lanes and I don’t see drastic changes in traffic schemes on 5th Avenue, on Park Avenue, on large crosstown streets on the Upper East Side. There needs to be more community input. They seem to doing it haphazardly, and I gotta tell you, I look at some of these, bike lanes that go through trucking lanes, it just doesn’t make sense. And then when you implement a bike lane and you see cyclists not using the bike lane, it’s counterproductive. For instance I think Houston Street, prior to building the islands in the middle, would have been a perfect location to come up with a concise, intelligent plan to put a bike lane, because this is why we have large crosstown streets. People need to get from point a to point b and they say ‘I’m not going to go across Spring when I can go across Houston.’ I support a bike friendly city. I am a cyclist. However, I don’t support something to the detriment of public safety. So there’s the balance.
TLD: In recent years, some residents, in the Lower East Side in particular, have begun to push back against restaurants and bars for making too much noise late at night. What is your position on this quality of life debate?
Gleason: 80-percent of the bars and restaurants are good neighbors. You have the 20-percent that have the loud music, have the unruly crowds, keep neighbors up at night. People need to get up in the morning and go to work. They don’t need to listen to blaring music. So that goes to constituent services. If someone has a problem, it’s great for the Council member to chime in. I think it’s even better for that Council member to get out there at 2 o’clock in the morning and see what it’s all about… You can’t wait for the problem to erupt. City government is more reactive than proactive. I look at Houston Street and I see cars clearly going 60, 70 miles per hour, at times. You don’t need a pedestrian to be killed to say ‘you know what, we need enforcement there.’ … As the Council member you have the ability to make a call and say ‘I want some officers posted on Houston Street.’ My biggest benefit to the district is that I’ve interfaced with virtually every city and state agency… and to be totally candid agencies have a tendency to not be forthcoming. It’s one thing when a resident calls the Department of Buildings and makes a complaint. It’s another if the Council member calls up and makes that same complaint… Let’s be honest, what earth moving legislation has the City Council passed in the past 8 years? It is a constituent service position, where you use the resources of your office to make life better. And over the past 8 years I can’t see one unit of true affordable housing being built in the district. I see a financial crisis o
n Wall Street that everyone is brushing under the rug. I still see a hole in the ground where the World Trade Center stood… This has become an island of the haves and the have nots. That’s not what this city has been about… we’re missing something here.
TLD: Councilman Gerson supported Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to extend term limits. Do you support term limits for members of the City Council?
Gleason: I’m more than willing to sign any document saying I would never vote to extend my own term without a voter referendum. That’s a clear answer to a direct question. When I hear an elected official say ‘oh it’s a complicated issue, that’s a pause where the wheels are spinning so they can come up with an excuse. We don’t need excuses. We need decisions, we need leadership. We just need transparency, candor, someone who can make a decision. I know everyone can’t agree with every decision you make but I hope people will respect me for making the decision. If it’s the wrong decision I will acknowledge that it’s wrong… It’s not the mistake you make that’s the problem. It’s the double talk and the cover up… Unfortunately (Kathryn Freed, former District 1 Council member) was not self serving like the current Council member and did not push to extend her own term limits, because if Kathryn Freed was the City Council person today I would not be sitting here with you. I would be supporting Kathryn. Her model of advocacy is legendary within the district… City Council members are grossly overpaid. It is designated a part time job… Today a City Council member chairing a committee makes approximately $125-thousand. According to the Gotham Gazette the current Council member has one of the worst attendance records… doesn’t show up for 80-percent of the hearings. His excuse is ‘he’s in the district.’ My question is, isn’t City Hall in his district?… It’s not meant to be a slam on the current Council member. It’s just espousing a fact.
TLD: You are an attorney. You served New York City as a police
officer and a firefighter. but you have not worked in city government.
Do you have the experience to serve on the City Council?
Gleason: At 17 years old in 1981 I enlisted in the US
Coast Guard… in the District. 1983 I became a police officer on the
Lower East Side, in the District. I was a firefighter, most of the
time, on the Lower East Side… As an attorney I do a tremendous amount
of pro bono work that benefits the community. I represented a steam
fitter who’s a whistleblower for asbestos in New York City schools. I
am dealing with an agency there, the Department of Education, that has
an inability to be candid. And because of my representation of this
there are people within the Department of Education who called me and
said I can’t speak to you publicly but I just want to let you know…
there is a master plan, because there isn’t enough classroom space in
the 1st District, to bus kids to Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn
Bridge… Your child should be within walking distance… So having
interfaced with all of these city agencies… being an officer in the
Coast Guard, a police officer, a firefighter- I think that makes me the
perfect candidate, because I’m able to cut through the red tape and get
to the core of the issue… Usually there’s a simple answer and
bureaucrats love to give you the convoluted answer… I won’t be afraid
to make a decision and accept the responsibility that comes along with
making that decision.