Four of the six candidates for NYC Council speaker joined in an online forum Nov. 17 focusing on the city’s green spaces.
City Council Members Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn), Francisco Moya (D-Queens), Keith Powers (D-Manhattan) and Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) and Council Member-elect Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) participated and the conversation centered on new approaches to funding and improving parks and other outdoor spaces in each borough. Here is the highlights:
The 1% rule
This topic has been brought up in mayoral forums as well, with mayor-elect Eric Adams committed to giving 1% of the city’s budget to parks. It is currently allotted about 0.5% of the budget, compared to other cities that use 1% as a baseline and spend much more percentage-wise. All four attendees agreed that this is the way to go.
“I think if we could do more, we would. You have to baseline it,” said Brewer, speaker from her recent experience as Manhattan borough president.
“We’ve had decades and decades of mayors being just cavalier about gutting the Parks Department budget, and dedicating just 1% of the city’s budget to parks would bring us closer to the more generous funding levels in the past,” said Brannan.
Rivera brought up an equity lens that reminded forum attendees that not everyone has access to parks, and when they do, many need repairs.
“Our parks are only enjoyed by a privileged few and too many communities get left behind on money and priorities. And that’s something that I’ve been working on with my colleagues, especially in some of our outer boroughs,” Rivera said.
The procurement process
All the candidates said the procurement of funds and capital to get projects done for a specific park or project is extremely difficult.
Brewer noted that just putting bathrooms in a park can cost upwards of $1 million, and the process is very flawed. In her response, she said, “I mean, a lot of firms will not bid with the city of New York because it takes so long. So the question is, can you pay people faster so that they will bid and then the procurement process would be faster?“
Moya also said that because the process isn’t streamlined, projects they fight for are often started long after the council members leave office. “We have to maximize our dollars in the way that you know that benefits the most number of New Yorkers, with a particular focus on the underserved areas,” Moya said. As a council member for the 21st district, he serves a neighborhood with one of the lowest amounts of greenspace: Jackson Heights.
“We can actually put money in the budget right now to make sure that we’re doing the maintenance on the parks and that way we can save ourselves for three, five years,” Powers added.
Open streets and outdoor dining
As supporters of the outdoor dining programs instituted during the worst of the pandemic in NYC, the candidates all had different views on how to maintain it safely. Brewer was not available for this portion of the debate, but the other three gave their opinions.
“I think it really comes down to making sure that our small businesses are not going to get subtly blindsided if we decide to start monetizing the outdoor dining,” said Brannan. Getting approved for and finding the money to execute outdoor dining space was made significantly easier during COVID-19, but businesses are not sure how long that will last, he said.
Rivera wrote the legislation that originally proposed the emergency open streets program in 2020, and she believes that it is time to make them permanent. “We made it central to our legislation that any community that wanted it where it’s appropriate, could have an open street, and they would have access to city support and resources. And that way we can ensure equity and access,” she said.
Powers also said that continuing the open streets and outdoor dining programs is essential. “The hospitality industry is going to continue to be impacted by the lack of folks who are visiting the city,” he said.
On prioritizing people and transit over cars, Brannan, Rivera and Powers support Transportation Alternatives’ 25 by 25 plan to repurpose 25% of street space. Moya did not give a clear yes or no, and Brewer was not on the call to answer.
Resilience is bound to be a topic of conversation in the council because of Hurricane Ida’s lasting impact on several neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and even Manhattan. All of the candidates at the forum supported the development of a climate resiliency plan for the whole city.
Brewer said that maintaining the sewage system is key to mitigating the effects of floods, but admitted that there isn’t much that can be done without significant financial investment. “We do need to work with the Department of Environmental Protection on what we can do for storing more rainwater so that it doesn’t end up in the rivers,” Brewer said.
Rivera said that climate change can also be treated as a housing issue because of the basement apartments and homeowners that are affected. Powers noted that the last few weather events exposed weakness in City Hall, that “we don’t have agencies ready or capable.”
The 51 members of the NYC Council will vote for speaker in January.