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TLD Interview: City Councilman Alan Gerson

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This is the fourth installment of our series of interviews with the candidates running for the 1st District City Council seat. The District includes the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Soho, Wall Street and Tribeca. We have already heard from Margaret Chin, Pete Gleason and PJ Kim. Today, it’s the incumbent’s turn.

We talked with Councilman Alan Gerson at his campaign headquarters, a quirky setup in the back of the Silver Spurs restaurant, on La Guradia Place in Soho. Gerson is able to run for a third term thanks to the City Council’s decision to extend term limits — a move he helped spearhead. We asked him about that controversial term limits decision, the fate of the former SPURA site, the future of Chatham Square and several other issues. Gerson is just now getting back into the swing of things, after overcoming a bout with the swine flu.

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, including our interviews with Chin, Gleason and Kim, see below. The full interview with Alan Gerson can be found after the jump.

TLD Interview: Margaret Chin
TLD Interview: Pete Gleason
TLD Interview: PJ Kim
Gotham Gazette’s District 1 Profile
City Hall News Primer – District 1 Race

TLD: Have you made a full recovery from your illness?

Gerson: I’m fine. I’m better. I’m fit and raring to go. We passed the budget and two days later I started feeling a little sick. I don’t think there’s a relationship other than maybe being a little bit run down, with the budget meetings combined with everything else in the district. Two days later I started feeling a little bit achy, didn’t think much of it. My fever shot up, doctor said you have to come in. I tested positive for what is technically the type A influenza, which is the test they use to detect the possible presence of swine flu… They don’t do the more fine-tuned test unless you have a more advanced case, which thank God I didn’t have. So I just had to take it easy and a lot of chicken soup and rest combined with medicine and I’m fine. So the lesson for everyone is, get yourself checked out if you feel under the weather.  Don’t delay, because the more you delay the longer it will take to get better. Do what the doctor says to do.

TLD: How do you assess your own performance representing the people of District 1?

Gerson: The record reflects an unparalleled level of accomplishment under the most difficult of circumstances– literally the day I took office and the aftermath of 9/11 to the current economic crisis. On every issue of concern to the community and of concern to the city I have been a hard worker and leader and I’m happy that the hard working leadership translated into real results. We can start with kids because that’s always been central to my work on the Council… In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the pressing concern was to make sure our kids were protected, that they received all the mental and emotional, physical services they require. I worked very closely with the Children’s Health Fund. They will tell you, Dr. Redletter (head of Children’s Health Fund), that my leadership was responsible for expanding guidance counseling and the availability of emotional and mental health professionals to the children of 9/11. Physical health – working with the community – we were all demanding the establishment of health care for all residents as well as for first responders. That was a battle but we got that done. I was the one who pointed out that we must include pediatric health care in that. It was after I spoke out and made our demands, we got a pediatric pulmonologist assigned to Gouverneur Hospital… I have been ensuring that we have sufficient classroom space for our children without overcrowded classes, without sacrificing art and music and fitness, phys-ed. We have two new schools opening this September in our district and I was central to that. I think we’re probably the only district in the city which has that. We had a negotiation with the developer, which required City Council approval… I insisted on a written commitment to the creation of a new school. So we’re creating new residential space. Our schools are already overcrowded. We got the written commitment. The Beekman School is under construction… It will open this September. It will be in a temporary location and it will move in a year from now into its new building. I am especially gratified that many of our youth initiatives have become models citywide… We’re the only district in the city which has universal swimming instruction as part of phys-ed for elementary (2nd and 3rd grades).

TLD: You have expressed concern about increasing youth violence on the Lower East Side. How serious is the problem, and are there sufficient resources in place to keep kids busy this summer?

Gerson: It’s a serious citywide issue. Throughout the city, especially in low income areas, we’re seeing an upsurge in youth violence. What I did is demand a response on the Lower East Side, where we’ve seen this by creating additional after school and summer programs. I negotiated with the Department of Youth and Community Development and with the Police Department, which operates programs as well, like the police cadet program and other programs. We created a task force and I brought in David Kaplan, who is an excellent leader of youth services. He and I went to middle school together. But in spite of that he does a great job… This is what I mean when I say ‘unparalleled accomplishments during difficult times.’ Everything was being cut back but I was able to make the case that this was the future of these kids and they could go one way or the other. We negotiated, I moved City Council money, got the administration to match, so just the other day I was at the opening day of the new little league baseball team. For the first time these kids in these housing projects of the Lower East Side have their own team participating in the downtown little league. When I leave you I’m going to deliver funding, which again we were able to obtain, to pay for the pitching machine which another Lower East Side team uses for practice. It’s more than just the baseball team. Do we have to do more? Yes. The city does not devote sufficient resources to our kids, to our future. Specifically on the Lower East Side I’m in the midst of negotiations with the mayor’s office on criminal justice… to establish a version of the community corps, in the form of a youth community corps on the Lower East Side. The idea is, when kids get into trouble, instead of either sending them back to the streets or sending them to jail, we send them into programs and situations which will help them in a positive way and monitor it. I hope to get that done this summer, and as a member of the youth committee, I am continually fighting for more resources and with great success.

What I have done on the Council is identify the most vulnerable sectors among our kids, which were being neglected and then make sure we end the neglect. I’ll give you three quick examples. Homeless teenagers, runaway kids, disproportionately LGBT whose families didn’t accept them. Up until a few years ago there was one shelter provider for teenagers. But they were not viewed as hospitable to these kids… We now have shelter beds, support services, literally saving lives… At the younger end of the spectrum… we now have family homeless shelters run by the Department of Homeless Services for adults with young children, from newborns to early teens. I uncovered, we did an investigative report on conditions, and we uncovered unacceptable conditions… we got real change. There is daycare and services that did not exist… the kids were using blankets that were provided from the jail system. It said on the blankets, Department of Corrections. When you’re a 9, 10 year old — that stinks, that sucks. We got the blankets removed. And the third example, applies to kids from all income levels, I passed Dignity in All Schools Act, the anti-bullying law, requiring the Department of Education to take bullying seriously… too many kids for whom going to school is torture because of repeated targeted taunting, teasing or physical abuse… On an uplifting note I think we’re the only Council office with a Space policy… We collaborated with NASA. You go to 220 Henry Street, we have a replica of Mission Control… Everyone knows we’re lagging in science and math… this program is designed to inspire kids to learn science and math and think that they could become scientists and engineers or astronauts. It’s open to the city but I had insisted in locating it in a lower income part of town… this is the first center in an urban school setting.

TLD: Let’s talk about transportation issues. There are a lot of concerns in Lower Manhattan, especially in Chinatown, about the proliferation of charter and tour buses. What can be done to alleviate the problem?

Gerson: We need a comprehensive Lower Manhattan bus management plan. I finally got Chris Ward, executive director of the Port Authority, to agree to support such a process, and now I’m working on DOT. They had agreed to do it when we were in negotiations over congestion pricing but there’s no reason, just because congestion pricing did not go forward, we can’t go forward with a bus management plan. I have been able, in the short term, to get increased enforcement. We have more traffic enforcement agencies in my district than ever before. One of the reasons is my repeated meetings with the NYPD chief of transportation. Sometimes they don’t always do the right thing, these agents. They over-ticket, and we’re working on that. But nevertheless in terms of safety and traffic, they’re indispensable, and we’ve had targeted bus enforcement operations. We have, in Lower Manhattan, a bus invasion. We have tour buses, we have long distance buses, we have commuter buses. You name it, we have it. And it’s only going to get worse when the Memorial (WTC) opens and that becomes a destination. You have to look at it holistically because even though these buses branch off to different destinations they travel down major streets. You might be able to manage them more effectively if you plan comprehensively. One layover spot or one depot can serve multiple categories.

TLD: But no one wants a depot in their neighborhood.

Gerson: There are good ideas we can adopt. I’ve been in touch with the bus industry. One idea is to utilize the space further uptown where the ocean liners come in and out. For most of the year that space is totally unused. There are other areas just over the bridge, and there may even be areas to create a  green bus garage. And, of course, we are going to create a bus depot as part of the overall former World Trade Center site redevelopment, but we need to do it in a way, appropriate size, so that it serves everyone. My intervention prevented Tribeca from becoming a bus depot when the city wanted to relocate buses right across the street from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, which would have been an environmental and traffic disaster.

TLD: Is it clear to you why the city postponed the planned reconfiguration of Chatham Square?

Gerson: Yes, because of political and community pressure — and I worked very closely with the community and we made it clear the opposition of the community. We also held a hearing, I called and chaired on this, where we revealed that the city was in violation with its agreement with the LMDC (Lower Manhattan Development Corp.) with respect to the procedure it was required to fulfill leading up to the plan. Specifically, to LMDC’s credit, they required very specific steps of community input. It was spelled out in black and white that proposed plans had to be displayed in local libraries. That never happened… We demanded that the LMDC withhold funding because of the city’s violation and the city withdrew its plan before we got to that point. But I’m sure in recognition that they were doing the wrong thing. So now the challenge is to use this time period to regroup and get the Department of Transportation to work with the community to come up with a plan that serves traffic and the broader community needs and provides the necessary support and assistance to the community to make it through the construction period, for small business.

TLD: Do you support the reopening of Park Row to all traffic and the alternative Chatham Square proposal by Chinatown residents?

Gerson: Yes to both. There clearly are security concerns related to Police Plaza and any street in proximity to it that are unique. I’ve been briefed and it would be irresponsible to shrug off those concerns. That being said, the technology exists, without going into detail, to open up Park Row for general traffic that meets security concerns. There’s hardening technology. You could do a lot of things that could make that street safer than many other streets near potential targets. It’s a question of the political will to spend the money. Chinatown and Chatham and the Civic Center lived through 9/11, remain committed to their neighborhood and their city and the community deserves the expenditure of money to make it whole and the money the city is losing due to the negative business impact and lost tax revenue as a result of the closure would pay for the investments. There are some short-term steps we could take to allow the folks in Chatham direct access to their driveway. I actually negotiated an agreement with Commissioner Kelly to do that, subject to financing. So it’s just a shame that money is standing in the way of doing right by the city. It was my legislation that ended up opening Park Row to the buses. I am determined to take the next step and get it reopened fully to the community, consistent with security.

As we were discussing transportation issues, a loud motorcycle sped down the street, prompting Councilman Gerson to address one of his pet peeves:

That is exactly why i have introduced legislation to make it easier for the city to rid our streets of excessively noisy motorcycles. My legislation would make it illegal to park a motorcycle on a public street with an illicit straight pipe or a pipe without the EPA seal of approval… Right now we have the catch 22 where excessively noisy motorcycles are illegal but it’s moving and the Police won’t stop a moving motorcycle, except when they sporadically, except when they have these roadblocks, which are very rare. It’s not illegal to park one of those motorcycles with an illegal pipe… so my legislation would allow Police to take a look, see if they’re illegal. They could be ticketed if they’re repeats. They could be confiscated and so I’m determined to get that done. What happens sometimes is those noisy motorcycles zoom by and then their vibrations set off the car alarms.

TLD: A few months ago during a transportation town hall meeting, you were critical of the DOT’s outreach to the community. Since that time have you seen any improvement?

Gerson: No. I was one of the original proponents of a policy to make New York City more bicycle safe and bicycle friendly, before the DOT embarked on ts current policies. I actually introduced legislation to set up a commission to recommend a plan to make New York more of a bicycle city, which would include bike lanes. I grew up in the city and I used to ride my bike as a kid on city streets… It’s part of what I am. The worst thing you can do to make our city bike friendly is to do it in the wrong way. That’s what happened on Grand Street. The current location and configuration of that bike lane clearly is opposed by the community, does create traffic backup and congestion, originally at least did interfere with access by emergency vehicles as shown by the fact that the DOT did have to re-orient the bike lanes at the corners to allow for turns by those vehicles. It’s outrageous that they didn’t get that right in the first place with proper consultation because it could have cost lives. I had attended a rally where I rode my bike to Houston Street, where I joined with the bicyclists. That would be a perfect location to put in a bike lane. We have suggested alternative configurations and routes, which would serve the same crosstown bike need without creating the hardship the current lane configurations create for the community. But it’s not just bike lanes. It’s other changes that imposed on the community and the DOT’s failure to make changes the community needs. So, for example, on Rurgers Street on the Lower East Side, the DOT decided to impose an additional traffic island and mid-street parking. So it was a wide street but you now had four lanes of parking on this wide street . Never mind that that was a traditional place for the Lower East Side stickball tournament. We intervened and got some modification. There was a lack of coordination with impacted communities. Further east on Grand Street there were objections to the placement of traffic islands… There’s no reason for it. On the other hand we have situations where the DOT refuses to install street lights in dangerous situations because the traffic counts don’t meet the federal warrant standards. But, you know what, this is New York City and there are many situations in our city where we need to go beyond the federal standards… I have introduced two pieces of legislation. One would require a greater degree of City Council review and community input before major changes to streets. The other would require the DOT to install signals at intersections which do not meet the federal standards, at the request of the Community Board and the Council member, unless there is a finding by DOT that, for some reason, the traffic lights would create a safety problem. So on my agenda for the next term is to get that legislation passed.

TLD: Are you optimistic a deal can be struck to finally develop the former SPURA site?

Gerson: This is 40 years of stagnation. We have been working with all sectors of the community and I’m confident we will settle on a plan with the community that will bring all of the communities together and will get the job done. The broad concept that we’re working towards is a holistic, comprehensive view of the site and the vicinity and, within that, to develop a mixed use plan which includes categories of housing and culture and commerce. I was just at the Smith Houses family day and I was speaking to families there and they need jobs. There’s an opportunity here to be creative and to have a magnificent multi-ethnic, multi-racial diverse cultural center bringing together cultures of the community. There are opportunities to create exciting and job producing commercial activities, both retail and very light manufacturing. We have an opportunity, perhaps, to shore up the downtown garment industry and to preserve existing affordable housing in the vicinity and at the same time to create additional affordable housing at significant levels of affordability, because too often what is called affordable is not affordable, and also by the way to include affordable senior housing, with an assisted living component. Sounds like a lot but this is a lot of space that we’re talking about and, you know if we get over the politics, we can make this type of exciting plan happen. I’m committed to doing it. Yes, it will have to include market rate components, both housing and commercial, because you’re going to need to have a cross subsidy to do everything else that you want to do. But this is aplace where we really can have it all.

TLD: You have allocated $400-thousand for the redevelopment of Luther Gulick Park, but the Parks Department has signaled they can’t move forward until the project has at least $1 million in funding.

Gerson: The Parks Department told me they can begin with the current level of funding. The Parks Department, as they should, always wants more sooner, and we always want to give them more sooner. But as you know, this was a very limited budget year, but I don’t want to postpone the process, because, we don’t even have a blueprint yet.

TLD: Could it take a couple of years?

Gerson: Hopefully not a couple of years to get the blueprint. I want to fast forward this. I want to get this done. I tend to be impatient. Part of what we’ve accomplished is reversing not years but decades of neglect in parts of our district. So for example in Columbus Park, you have the pavilion, which was fenced off, what I call the pigeon pavilion… I demanded that it be reopened, returned to the community. It’s now a people’s pavilion. It’s wonderful to go by, see people using that. The Allen Street and Pike Street traffic islands, or malls, were allowed to become run down, dangerous. Our vision with the community was to turn it into a wonderful green walkway. We co-named it Avenue of the Immigrants. We have something like 13 islands. Each island can be designed a little differently to reflect the diversity of the Lower East Side… But Luther Gulick Park is in that category. It’s been neglected for far too long and  I’m determined to reverse that neglect, as we’ve done elsewhere. We have already begun that process and we are continuing it.

TLD: Your opponents have been critical of your decision to support the mayor’s campaign to extend term limits without a referendum. Can you explain your position on this issue?

Gerson: I’m looking forward to a good healthy robust campaign. I think the two major candidates had stated their intentions to run when they thought I would not seek re-election and, in fact, sought my support. I understand why they’re continuing to stay in the race. People run for all sorts of reasons, including to position themselves for the future. I’m confident that we have support in all neighborhoods, in all sectors of our district. Our coalition of support… is going to result in a great victory. But I’m going to run hard. I’m not going to take anything for granted. There should have been a referendum. It had been my long-standing position. I had demanded early on that the mayor support putting the issue to the people. The mayor, as you know, waited until the last possible moment to introduce the legislation, putting the Council in a terrible position, putting the people in New York in an unfair position. In spite of that, I was one of the leaders who introduced an amendment on the floor of the Council to the mayor’s bill extending term limits. My co-sponsors and I, I was a leader of this effort, introduced the amendment to require a referendum. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times an amendment is introduced from the floor. it was a real effort, as evidenced by the fact that we came within 7 votes. We knew it was an uphill battle because we’re going against the mayor and against the Council leadership. But we had the support of all the leading organizations that were calling for a referendum, including the Working Families Party. We worked very hard to get the amendment approved… Unfortunately we didn’t make it. At that point, with a referendum taken off the table I, after a great deal of conscience wrestling, which I was doing all along actually, made the principled decision of voting in support of an open election which would allow incumbents to run. Look, I take government process seriously and I have a record of reform, and speaking out for transparency. Going back, I was a member of the New York Committee on Open Government. My leadership in the local political clubs was always characterized by calling for reform in the way we select judges. I was one of the original member’s of the Council’s Fresh Democracy Caucus. So I take reform seriously. There should have been a referendum. Reasoning from the principles of maximum democracy, I concluded that the best of the worst alternatives was to let the voters have an open choice. Many constituents, a minority, but not an insignificant minority, saying ‘we don’t want to be bound by a referendum of 12 years ago. Things are different now. We’re concerned about a wholesale turnover of city government. We want the option of voting for the incumbent,’ You can agree or disagree with that, and I don’t think that any one individual, including the mayor, is indispensible for the future. But that issue of whether someone should continue is an issue that deserves to have been debated by the body politic. It should have been debated in the context of a referendum. But once that wasn’t possible, the only way to have that debate is in the context of an open election. The least democratic outcome, I concluded, was to preclude that debate by giving automatic deference to a 12 year old referendum under different circumstances, which by the way, that same referendum gave the City Council the authority to modify referenda results. You don’t want to set the precedent of absolute — a referendum by the voters deserves great discretion, which is why I introduced the amendment. But to give it absolute discretion prevents your legislative body from responding to changed circumstances or correcting a result such as we say on the west coast where, in a referendum, voters voted against same sex marriages. So you didn’t want to set that precedent. In this case there was a need for that debate. It should have been through a referendum, but it was a principled decision, which I knew would be a difficult one politically. My constituents, whether they agree or disagree, should feel confident that I did everything I could to get their referendum, and thereafter, made a principled decision, which we could agree to disagree on. As Mayor Koch said, ‘if you agree with me most of the time you should support me. If you agree with me all the time you should see a psychiatrist.’

TLD: Why did you, personally,  decide to run for a third term?

Gerson: I made it clear from the beginning that, if I was allowed to, I would run, just for some of the reasons we were talking about. To go back to Koch, who is a constituent, his point, with which I agree, is there should be term limits because there should be a turnover. But, at the legislative level, three terms really is the right level just because, the issues we’re talking about, I mean, I’m in the midst, whether it’s SPURA or whether it’s reopening the bath house on Madison Street or Park Row, reopening that, I’m in the middle of it. Especially, when the first term was so consumed with constituent needs in relation to 9/11, the district would lose the benefit of the experience and the involvement and the ability I have to bring to closure so many of these great projects which we’re in the midst of, which we can get done within the next term.

TLD: What else would you like to add?

Gerson: I’m proud of the creativity we brought to establishing innovative senior programs. This is the only district in the city of New York where a senior can call and get free installation of bathroom grab bars because of a program we piloted. Sounds like a simple thing. But it’s a mobility saving, life saving and life enhancing measure which seniors have said has made a really great difference in their lives. We brought in innovative exercise programming through the Arthritis Association, into senior centers. We have kept every senior center open five days a week in this district, even when there were cutbacks. I negotiated from from the LMDC to create affordable senior housing… Seniors who built up a neighborhood for years shouldn’t have to leave if they need a little bit of assistance… I was the first elected official to talk about historic preservation, which now you hear from the mayor… If we don’t preserve what we have, we’ll lose more than we’re ever able to create… We’ve done an incredible amount over the past years by working together with leaders all over the district, being creative, not giving in to difficult times, but finding end runs about them. We’ve got a lot in the works. I want to continue with the community to get it all done.

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