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A Conversation with Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President In-Waiting

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Gale Brewer has a token Republican opponent but there is no question that the Democratic nominee for Manhattan Borough President will sail to easy victory in the New York City General Election November 5.  Earlier this month, we sat down with Brewer, at her City Council office, to discuss the road ahead as she prepares for the new job.

Gale Brewer visited an East Village senior center with Council member Rosie Mendez during the primary.
Gale Brewer visited an East Village senior center with Council member Rosie Mendez during the primary.

Brewer has represented the Upper West Side in the Council since 2002 and has a long track record in city government and in the private sector. During our conversation, she was careful not to get too far ahead of the political process; there is another election, after all, and for a few more weeks Scott Stringer is still borough president.

During the competitive primary campaign (it was a four-way race), she got to spend a lot of time in neighborhoods all over the city, including the Lower East Side.  As a strong affordable housing advocate, she is very much aware that it’s a hot-button issue on the LES, but another topic she was quick to bring up was the need for increased retail diversity.  “The Lower East Side is a phenomenal community,” she said. “(It), thank God, still has the diversity and the edginess and the excitement and what we all have to work on is keeping the mom and pop stores.”  On the Upper West Side, Brewer helped push through new zoning restricting the size of storefronts on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, a measure intended to discourage more large bank branches in that neighborhood.  While stopping short of advocating the same type of zoning restrictions on the Lower East Side, she did say other communities could potentially benefit from zoning meant to protect independent businesses.

We also discussed the Seward Park development initiative, the mixed-use/mixed-income project coming to nine parcels in the vicinity of Delancey and Essex streets. “The whole rest of the borough is very jealous,” Brewer said of the project, dubbed “Essex Crossing.”  Seward Park includes 50% affordable housing and the overall plan was developed over a four-year period by Community Board 3. “Everywhere I go,” Brewer said, the question, is ‘why can’t we be like Seward Park?'”   It is a “tribute to CB3, the elected officials and all of the neighborhood stakeholders” for breaking a 45 year standoff on the Lower East Side over the former urban renewal area.

As borough president, Brewer explained, she would like to see communities emulate the kind of large-scale master planning that occurred on the LES.  “What I would like to do as borough president,” she said,  “is to a large extent what happened at Seward Park. You put the stakeholders in a room even before there’s a project (defined) and you say, ‘what do we want here?’  It’s not necessarily a whole plan for the neighborhood but it would be a plan for empty land, vacant land.”  Brewer believes her office will be able to play an important role in helping to bring people together but she is also committing to providing community boards with more resources to analyze neighborhood-level data.  Currently, the cash-strapped boards are assigned an urban planning graduate student.  Brewer wants to add a second fellow, a data expert, in each community district to help communities in their advocacy efforts.

During the Bloomberg era, Brewer acknowledges, New York City has become a less affordable place to live.  Market forces have come into play, she said, but the fact remains that a great deal of low-income and middle-income housing has been lost during an administration with a voracious appetite for development.  “If we don’t have low-income and middle-income housing,” Brewer warned, “we’re not going to have civic participation in our schools and our community boards and in our block associations. That’s the diversity that I think is missing. When the mayor talks about people coming to New York (from other places and making the city economically stronger), yes, people need to come to New York, but the people who live here need to have a chance of staying here and we also need people coming who are not wealthy. We need all kinds of people.”  Every project, Brewer asserted, “needs to have something that addresses the affordable housing crisis.”

The Bloomberg administration (Seward Park aside) is often criticized for its “top down” management style in which communities have little to say about priorities and projects.  Brewer said a classic example of this approach is the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to build market rate housing on public housing property (the City Council recently filed a lawsuit to stop the initiative).  Brewer does not buy NYCHA’s argument that new housing on its properties must be predominantly luxury. “No one wants to see building on every available NYCHA site,” she said, “particularly high income, but there may be opportunities for revenue for the housing authority – affordable grocery stores near public housing, for example, and other stores providing services.”  Brewer said it’s imperative to maintain the relatively small number of open gathering spots in NYCHA developments because they are critical to sustaining public housing’s close-knit communities. “You can’t just say,” she said, “because there is empty space — put up a building. Don’t take the parking spaces, the playgrounds and all the light and air.”

Finally, we talked about community boards.  She’ll be responsible for appointing new members in Manhattan, in collaboration with local Council members. Brewer said she believes the appointment process is good.   In the past, her predecessor, Scott Stringer, has been criticized for appointing bar owners to the boards.  Some local activists think it’s a conflict, particularly when nightlife operators sit on committees reviewing liquor licenses.  Brewer said she does not have a problem with owners of bars on the community boards. “Everyone should be represented,” she argued.  On the Upper West Side, Brewer noted, there are sometimes similar questions about landlords.  But community boards are stronger, she suggested, when all constituencies are at the table.

In the days before the election, Brewer said she’s been working with the current borough president’s office on the transition and preparing early efforts to bring greater transparency and accessibility. “I’m a big technology supporter. So we’re trying to think about how to create a 21st century office,” she said.

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  1. So glad Brewer is going to be the new BP! Refreshing to hear someone who has done her work and knows how to think about preserving and building inclusive communities.

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