Campaign 2013: Our Interview With City Council Member Margaret Chin

File photo; Margaret Chin at a kickoff event for her 2013 campaign.

Coming up Tuesday, downtown voters will decide who they want to represent them in the City Council during the next four years.  As primary day fast approaches, we’re publishing in-depth interviews with District 1 City Council member Margaret Chin and Jenifer Rajkumar, who’s challenging her for the seat. Today we begin with Chin.

Margaret Chin announced the launch of her re-election campaign in June.
Margaret Chin announced the launch of her re-election campaign in June.

District 1 includes the Lower East Side, as well as Chinatown, Soho, the South Village, Tribeca, the Seaport and Financial District.  In 2009, Chin made history, becoming the first Chinese American to represent Chinatown in the Council.  Her first term has been defined by several large development plans – including NYU’s expansion proposal, as well as the Seward Park and South Street Seaport redevelopment initiatives.  These contentious issues – as well as campaigns to create business improvement districts in Chinatown and Soho – have raised the ire of some constituents and fueled Rajkumar’s challenge.  Chin’s opponents have portrayed her as beholden to real estate interests.  Chin, who cites her 40-year track record as a housing activist, counters that she has fought vigorously to win the best deals possible for the people who live in all of the neighborhoods she represents.

During our recent interview, we asked Council member Chin for the single best reason voters should choose her on September 10th:

There are many reasons, I’m not sure you can point to one reason… In my first term all the work I have done truly representing every single neighborhood, even though on some issues some people may not have totally agreed with me… we addressed every single neighborhood in District 1. In four years there was so much that went on… It was a great learning experience but at the same time I think I delivered for my district in terms of capital dollars, we were able to get schools… If you look at the overall discretionary funding it is pretty well spread around.

And what about those lessons learned? Chin alluded to the bruising fight over New York University’s expansion.  The Council approved the plan last year, infuriating many residents in the Village.  And she suggested that the reality of being an office holder is a lot different from operating as a community activist:

I had so many (land use applications) that came through the district. In a way we were prepared for it. I hired staff with expertise… I listened to the community but also realize, look, there are certain tough decisions to be made but always be mindful that you have to make sure the community is taken care of… You also have to look at what’s the overall impact, not just in the neighborhood but for the overall city. So it was really giving me the opportunity to look at things broadly.  Coming in as an advocate is very different than being someone in a position to govern.  As an advocate you just go all the way and you push as hard as you can. When you’re in (elected office) you have to look at all sides and you have to be able to find compromises. I think that is one of the major lessons that I learned. Sometimes those compromises are not easy.  You know there are going to be people unhappy with you and you want to make everybody happy. Then you realize that in life you can’t make everybody happy. But you have to make sure that you stick to your principles and go home at night and be okay with yourself.

While the NYU zoning fight was not primarily a Lower East Side issue, the school’s massive expansion will impact all of downtown in one way or another. In spite of her efforts to reduce the size of the development scheme, a lot of people were deeply disappointed in the end. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said, “giving (NYU) basically 80 percent of what they asked for is not a compromise.”  What does Chin think voters should know about her role in the controversial process?  Her answer:

All the constituency groups, they are advocating for their interests, for their needs, and of course, everyone wants to get as much as they can. We tried to really look at the issues. we met with every single constituent group that wanted to meet… we went to meetings… So in a way all these years of work that was done, you gotta be able to find issues that you can compromise on and make sure certain things are taken care of. We looked at all the major issues. If I don’t take the opportunity to do something now and just pass the buck and leave it to the next Council member nine years down the road when the deed restriction is up, NYU can come back and do things ‘as of right.’ You have to seize the moment. This is the time to do something. That’s what i did. How do we mitigate the negative impact?  That’s why everything is written down in a restrictive declaration… The open space, we got NYU to commit to maintaining the open space and having community input… Every month I still meet with NYU, get an update on all the issues they have agreed to before they even start any kind of construction. So I think my constituents should know that their Council member is very, very responsive, that I don’t just say, ‘oh I voted on it, it’s out of my hands.’ We’re still here making sure that whatever promises were made are followed through.

Councilmember Margaret Chin and Speaker Christime Quinn just before the City Council approved the Chinatown BID in 2011.
Council member Margaret Chin and Speaker Christine Quinn just before the City Council approved the Chinatown BID in 2011.

On to development issues “closer to home.”   During Chin’s first term the City Council approved a land use plan for the Seward Park parcels near the Williamsburg Bridge, effectively ending a 45-year stalemate.  All elected officials, including the Council member, stayed mostly clear of the issue for three years as a Community Board 3 task force hashed out a compromise various neighborhood constituencies could accept.  They eventually settled on a plan calling for 50% affordable and 50% market rate housing, along with a large amount of commercial development.  At the end of the process, Chin entered the picture, leading negotiations with the city that resulted in a commitment for permanent affordability at Seward Park.  She won praise from members of CB3 but was criticized by some local activists who were angered that Chin backed away from a promise to seek 100% affordable housing.  In hindsight, we asked, does Chin think it’s the best deal that could have been achieved?

It was a very engaging process that included so many different stakeholders, former site tenants, community board members, community organizations, people who have been working on this issue from day one. In the past, nothing happened. This time everyone wanted to make it happen, so all sides were willing to compromise. I wanted to make sure that coalition stayed together.  Yes, when I was advocating I advocated for 100% because I truly believed that public land should be for public needs and there’s such a great need for affordable housing in this city but definitely in our district. As an elected official, as someone who has to be accountable, you really have to look at everything. It was a great process. people sat down. There was give and take… I think it’s a great learning experience for all of us. Yes, you can have 100% affordable and then you won’t have anything else… I think the city has invested a lot of time and effort in there and they want to make sure the (project) comes to fruition… During the process we talked to advocates and said, ‘look, I know everybody thinks that 50% is not enough, including myself. Let’s see if we can do something off site

Another concession Chin won  a commitment from the city to build more affordable housing on a city-owned site at 21 Spring St.  While some people in Soho are unhappy about the location that was chosen, Chin says it offers a rare opportunity to create housing for people living in the district. She also pointed to the creation of a community task force, which is helping to select the Seward Park developers (a decision is expected in the early fall).  And Chin said she’s continuing to press for a new school on the site. While space has been set aside, the Department of Education insists there’s no need for a new facility on the Lower East Side.

Right now we are doing the groundwork for it. A lot of times with DOE I am not sure about their expertise (in determining when a school is needed/based on Lower Manhattan experience)… There is a need.  We have to see the site as an opportunity to create a great school that at the same time could be a great community amenity. We will continue to advocate for that, together with other elected officials, to make sure that the space designated for a school, that it happens.

135 Bowery, August 2013.
135 Bowery, August 2013.

One of the more controversial issues for Chin on the Lower East Side was her handling of an application to landmark 135 Bowery, a 194 year old row house that has now been demolished.  The Council member first supported the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its decision to protect the building, but later changed her mind.  Preservation activists accused Chin of caving to the property owner, First American International Bank.  A bank executive, Patrick Yau, was one of the leaders of the successful campaign to create a Chinatown BID, a proposal Chin strongly supported. Employees of the bank have donated nearly $6000 to Chin’s re-election campaign.  Following the City Council’s decision to reject the landmark application, a real estate listing surfaced for the property, in spite of the bank’s promise to develop the site for affordable office space.  We asked Chin why there hasn’t been any activity at the site in many months:

The site is being developed. I think the owner is still developing the site according to what was presented to us at the City Council. There were some setbacks, but we met with the owner so now it’s back on track… Yes it is one of those historic buildings. In the beginning (of the landmarking process), they (the Landmarks Commission) show you the picture and the history and it looks like a building that should be landmarked. But when you look at it in more detail there were other issues that came up. The building was altered many times and when my chief of staff at that time went to the site to visit, it was an empty shell. So you look at what can be done on the site that can meet a community need. We got the owner to do a building that’s in context with the building across the street. It’s not going to be a tall building and they’re going to maintain the character (of the Bowery)… I thought the owner made a very strong case. In the city we have saved a lot of historic buildings but a lot of times you have to look at potential development for the community.  You cannot save every single historic building.  We’ve gotta move ahead. That decision was not an easy decision.

As for campaign donations from bank employees, Chin said:

I have contributions from a broad sector of people. One of my supporters, from the women’s committee, she worked for that bank many years ago. She has supported me so she made a contribution. The owner of the bank, they appreciate the work that I do in the community. They were also part of the efforts to support the Chinatown BID, Chinatown Partnership, so they do work in the community, they support small businesses in the community… I get contributions from a lot of people who support the work that I do. (Asserting that critics like to make false allegations, attempting to link financial contributions with decisions she has made, Chin added:) You have to look at my work overall and the kinds of contributors I have. I have over 800 contributors from all sectors.

A portion of a Jobs for New York mailer criticizing Rajkumar.
A portion of a Jobs for New York mailer criticizing Rajkumar.

A related issue not only in the District 1 campaign but in races across the city, is robust spending by a political action committee, Jobs for New York, which is funded by some of New York’s biggest real estate developers.  The group has spent $175,000 to send out direct mail pieces in support of Margaret Chin and another $40,000 on mailers sharply critical of Rajkumar.   One organization that has been an ally of Chin in the past, Tenants PAC, refused to endorse Chin because she has not specifically repudiated the support of Jobs for New York.  Outside groups are legally prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates.  Last week, Chin signed on to legislation proposed by Brooklyn Council member Brad Lander intended to reign in spending by outside groups.  Here’s how Chin addressed the issue during our interview:

Chin: I think with Tenants PAC they also recognize my strong history, tenant organizing, tenant advocacy. It’s something that I have already said publicly many times… I don’t think third-party expenditures should be allowed. These are independent expenditures. I can’t tell them what to do. People have to look at my track record. It’s there, 30 some 40 years.  So I think that is my commitment and what I have done for my community. I’m not for sale. That’s very clear. My opposition, of course they’re going to use it.

The Lo-Down: Have you told the group you don’t what them spending on your behalf?

Chin: We don’t even know who to contact. We can’t have any contact with them.

The Lo-Down: There has been no communication with the group whatsoever?

Chin: There has been no communication. We have no control over what they sent out. They download pictures and get whatever information, which to me is not the most accurate information.

During our conversation, a few other issues came up.   On the New York City Housing Authority’s unpopular plan to lease public housing property for market rate development, Chin said she’s optimistic about a recent decision to slow down the development process:

It’s good that they’re slowing down. It’s still not enough. The Council as a whole has a decision to make about how we review this. But the whole aspect of community input… true input is not there. We want to make sure we preserve (NYCHA) as affordable housing and to improve living conditions of (residents) now. Some of the stuff that the mayor is raising is really out of touch.

Are there any circumstances, we asked, under which she could support a land lease plan to deal with NYCHA’s serious financial woes?

The difference I have with (NYCHA) is the kind of housing they want to build. The first time they briefed me I told them 80/20 (80% market rate, 20% affordable) is not going to be acceptable. The affordable housing component is going to be really critical because it’s public land and because there are so many people on NYCHA waiting lists… There’s such a tremendous need. That’s why in the City Council we’re looking at other sources of revenue (she mentioned the unpopular $75 million annual fee paid by NYCHA to the police department).

Chin was a frequent visitor at Knickerbocker Village in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Chin was a frequent visitor at Knickerbocker Village in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

On the issue of preparedness for future natural disasters in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we asked Chin whether she feels her district is better prepared than it was a year ago:

I think people know what some of the problems are. I have visited a lot of buildings. Some of them are moving mechanical equipment. We are doing legislation in the City Council to make sure certain things happen. We want a registry for elderly and other vulnerable populations. I have introduced legislation that will mandate commercial and residential buildings have a preparedness plan in terms of where people should go to find shelter and what else you can do if you decide to stay at home. The city as a whole, we have to put the support back into our CERT (emergency response) teams, about doing more education… Seward Park High School (the existing emergency shelter) is not sufficient. We have to start looking for other sites. During Sandy and Irene, I helped evacuate one of the senior buildings down in the Seaport and it was really sad to see seniors with no families to go to. They end up going to the shelter and it’s not the most appropriate place for them… We want to see if more facilities, churches, can step up and provide some space.

As for her opponent, Chin talked about whether Jenifer Rajkumar, who was elected district leader in 2010, is qualified to serve on the City Council:

Look at her record. Look at her record. That’s all I’m asking the voters to do. What has she done? And then compare that to my record? And I think a lot of residents in the district know that.  Even as a district leader what have you done? Other district leaders work with their elected officials on many, many issues. What has she done? She has never worked with me. She supposedly is my district leader, right. Never reached out, not on any issue, not during Sandy, you know, ‘what can I do to help?’ That’s what track records are for.

Finally, we asked what Chin considers her top priorities in a second term:

In my second term I want to see that the work we have done in the first term, all these projects that went through ULURP, we will continue to follow-up, make sure that things that were agreed upon get implemented. Hopefully I would love to see construction start at Seward Park, affordable housing being built on that site and also at the 21 Spring Street site. The other thing besides affordable housing is also seeing some schools built. One new school is coming on line. The other thing is really focusing on our small businesses, giving them the support that they need, so that they can continue to prosper and thrive in Lower Manhattan. I think in the City Council we are putting in legislation now to try to provide better support for small business and cut back on these fines and these inspections that really do not help small businesses. Quality of life. I would love to see some of the parks that we have supported finally get to be finished, like Gulick Park (at Delancey and Willett streets), some of the other playgrounds that we have spent capital dollars on in the district. Overall I want to make sure that all the programs that are essential in our community, whether they are for our seniors, for our youth, after school programs, that they get the funding that they need.

Tomorrow — our interview with Jenifer Rajkumar.