Our Man in Albany: Q&A with Brad Hoylman
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | The following excerpts are from a January 25 phone interview with New York State Senator Brad Hoylman.
CHELSEA NOW: In late December, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent a letter to City Council Speaker Quinn — in which he denied a request to realign the 10th and 13th Precinct boundaries so a small patch of East Chelsea would be covered by the 10th. That action had the support of Quinn, and many community groups. What is your position on precinct coterminality?
SENATOR BRAD HOYLMAN: To me, it seems long overdue. It certainly is a logical request by the community boards to have the precincts aligned with their district. I completely understand how confusing it is. Issues spring up in different boards, the precincts have to attend both [boards], and everybody’s job is made much more difficult.
I’m strongly supportive of CCBA [the Council of Chelsea Block Associations] and their efforts. The local electeds are generally in agreement on the necessity [of precinct realignment]. The argument that it would be beneficial for those who live in the neighborhoods as well as the NYPD is our strongest case. So I’m going to continue the work of our local electeds, and work in concert with them.
I am disappointed by Commissioner Kelly’s refusal to make it happen. One of the goals of our police force, I know, is local engagement. Of course, I have tremendous respect for the exceptional work of the commanders and officers of both precincts, and coterminality facilitates their community engagement.
CN: As part of the City Council’s approval of Chelsea Market’s vertical expansion, Community Board 4 and City Planning are looking into making some changes to the Special West Chelsea District (SWCD), which was created in 2005. Do you think brining other areas into SWCD coverage is necessary?
BH: I think the community board [CB4] is doing precisely the right thing in initiating a public process that’s collaborative and will explore the expansion of the district. As a former community board chair [of CB2], I appreciate when elected officials press the pause button and see what the local community wants. This is a process from the ground up.
Rather than impose my views at this point, I want to see what CB4 comes up with. Then, I look forward to working with them. That’s what community-based planning is all about, not having elected officials lord over our boards.
CN: CB4’s January Chelsea Land Use Committee meeting on the topic of SWCD expansion addressed the new realities of building in Zone A. How should we approach the notion of more development on the west side, given the lessons learned from Sandy?
BH: I’m very interested in what Governor Cuomo said in his State of the State, and in his budget remarks — that we need to rebuild, but we need to build better. I think that applies to every property in Zone A, and I have significant concerns — not just about mitigation, but about how we can protect against rising water on the entire West side of Manhattan.
To move forward without a full examination of that would be a mistake — and that would include any attempts to build on Hudson River Park or any part of the West Side that is in Zone A. So I’m hopeful we will get some answers from both the state and the city on how we should proceed. Until we do, and the governor has a number of commissions looking at these issues, we need to take a deep breath and wait for a full decision.
CN: Does that mean halting plans for construction until these commissions recommend or require policy changes?
BH: Certainly for new construction, it would be prudent to understand how we can prevent future surges — whether it’s storm surge barriers, which is an idea I think we need to full explore, or other ways to shore up the west side of Manhattan. We need full analysis.
That would apply to the east side as well. My district was hit by the East River and the Hudson. We had a major hospital on the East side hit, and they’re still not up and running — a major trauma center [Bellevue]. At this point, you have to go up to Cornell [Medical Center] if you have traumatic injury. So the consequences are enormous, and it’s in everybody’s interest that we ascertain how we can prevent this from happening in the future.
CN: During the long public vetting process that ultimately allowed for Jamestown Properties to expand Chelsea Market, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process was criticized for its lack of transparency. What changes, if any, do you think should be made when a developer submits a ULURP application?
BH: We need involvement in the first stages of discussions, because many of us get the strong sense that these plans are approved behind closed doors by City Planning, and then rolled out to the community in a way that anticipates there will be small concessions made as part of the negotiations.
Instead, I think a better way would be for the community boards to be in the developer’s first presentation. We’ve ceded too much authority to the Mayor’s Office when it comes to local planning. I’ve seen it time and time again, whether it’s major rezonings or variances. The central mayoral administration makes the decisions, then we’re left to chip away at the margins.
CN: Can you cite one of those instances?
BH: Three letters: N-Y-U. I and my colleagues on CB2 [Community Board 2] were in the thick of it. This was a plan that was pre-approved, and local officials were left to make trims to the margins. If there was a public discussion at the stage of the initial meeting with City Planning, then I think we’d all have had a better sense of what NYU was really asking for, and what they wanted.
Bottom line, none of those meetings between developers and City Planning would be behind closed doors. We need some sunlight on the early stages of the development process. I’m hopeful that a new city administration will examine the process. Public input always results in better outcomes, and I’m hopeful that the next mayor will agree with that.
CN: But the majority of public input, in the case of Chelsea Market, was that of staunch opposition — and the project was still approved, albeit with some community benefits such as affordable housing and High Line funding that many view as too little, too late. Did the opposition’s refusal to budge hurt its ability to be part of the negotiations?
BH: Again, this is why we need to be at the first stage, when the project is revealed. Developers bring these projects to communities in hopes that the core of the proposal will remain, so they’re much larger than they’d be otherwise. That then results in local neighborhood groups taking oppositional positions that are resoundingly negative, and with good reason.
But if local community activists were at the ground floor, perhaps we’d all be dealing with reality and not be so polarized. Both sides are polarized, because of the nature of the process. Chelsea Market is an example of that. NYU is another example.
CN: What community groups have you met with, and how do their concerns fit into your legislative agenda?
BH: I’ve met with a lot of groups, and I support the work of many groups — like The Actors Fund, which offers free computer training classes [for seniors] in Chelsea. That’s a practical way to support our senior community, which is growing. We also need to fully fund our senior centers and create a more age-friendly city — giving more time at the crosswalks; things that, when you’re 30, you don’t necessarily think of.
Also, certainly, I work with the tenant advocacy groups in my district, whether it be individual tenant associations or citywide associations. They [Tenants & Neighbors and the Metropolitan Council on Housing] have an agenda that I firmly embrace.
The tenant agenda is largely based in Albany, because that’s where the laws are made — and I’ve already seen the influence of the real estate lobby, in just the few weeks I’ve been there. So I’m cognizant of their influence, and of the necessity for representative like me to stand up for rent regulated tenants. That would include also our public housing tenants — and you know, I have serious concerns. I’ve written a letter to the Commissioner about NYCHA’s response after Sandy, and the foot-dragging that apparently occurred…the lack of preparedness on getting those developments up and running after the storm. I testified last week at a hearing. Dick Gottfried and I co-wrote a letter of testimony.
CN: Your predecessor, Tom Duane, was a staunch advocate of prison and parole reform. What is your position on both of these matters?
BH: I have a responsibility to live up to Tom Duane’s work, to continue that advocacy. I’m on the Corrections Committee, which examines that issue. It’s so important to our local communities that we focus more on rehabilitation and less on incarceration. I believe in second chances, but I also believe there’s this prison industrial complex in the state of New York. Unfortunately for some communities, prisons are job generators.
I represent many families in the city whose sons and daughters might be incarcerated hundreds of miles away from their homes. That’s why I’m concerted the governor has slated Bayview [a women's prison located at 550 West 20th Street] to be closed, as part of his budget.
The administration is claiming there are cost savings, which could be true. But there’s a public policy argument to be made that these women, largely from New York City, should be close to their families during their period of incarceration — particularly since it’s a medium security facility. That support network is crucial to their rehabilitation, to have their families nearby.
CN: Talk about some of the work you’re doing in Albany that doesn’t address hyperlocal concerns [such as Zone A], but still impacts Manhattanites.
BH: We should all be concerned about our state budget, and how it impacts the most vulnerable in our society — and certainly, when there’s a call not to raise taxes, yet we’ve already cut social services to the bone, we need to make certain we have a social safety net. I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. We need to have a reality check on pledges like No New Taxes, and we [the state] need to, like our federal government, ask those who can afford it to pay a little more.
There is a rural/urban divide when it comes to topics like guns. There are issues like casino gambling. Some upstate communities may see that as a job generator. In Manhattan, we may see it as a scourge, because of the negative impact it may have in our neighborhoods…not to mention traffic, and you could argue it’s not the most family-friendly of industries.
There are lots of other urban issues — the way the lines have been gerrymandered in the State Senate makes the Republican interests disproportional to their votes, which is why you have control of the State Senate by Republicans, which dilutes not just urban [issues], but the impact of minorities; people of color, women, LGBT folks. Let’s face it, I’m the only openly-LGBT person in the State Senate. That seems extraordinary to me.
CN: What LGBT issues are at the forefront of your concerns in Albany?
BH: Making that final push to full equality concerns people who are of the transgender experience. The fact of the matter is, in many parts of New York State, you can get fired from your job for being transgender, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You have no recourse.
CN: How can that be addressed legislatively?
BH: When you speak to advocates, one of the major [policy] concerns they hear is, what bathroom should they use? It’s preposterous. I was at a hearing this summer that Senator Squadron organized along with Assemblymember Gottfried — and they spoke about how they heard testimony from police chiefs in different cities across the state, who said that a transgender rights bill would make everyone safer. We need to set parameters for society, and underscore what is acceptable. Treating trans people differently is inhumane.
CN: Getting to know a gay, lesbian or bisexual person, as a friend or co-worker, seems to make a difference when it comes to embracing the notion that they deserve equality, and protection under the law. Why does empathy for trans people seem so lacking, in comparison?
BH: That’s part of the challenge [of getting laws passed]. I think it’s rooted largely in ignorance among people who don’t know anyone who is transgender. There are fewer [day to day personal] encounters, so it’s going to be up to the legislators and advocates to share their experiences. It’s going to require an education campaign — and a lot of that work is being done already. We have great advocacy groups in New York, and then there’s the work of so many pioneers like Tom Duane and Chris Quinn. We have marriage, the bullying bill. There will be other challenges, of course — but the last horizon, in many respects, is full trans equality.
Another group that is marginalized, and historically without a voice, are runaway LGBT youth. In my district, it is an issue, and we need greater support for them. So I’m working with groups in that regard — not just as a senator. As a middle-aged gay man, it’s my responsibility to look after those coming after me, and make sure they have the support they need.
CN: What are your top priorities for the local infrastructure and economy?
BH: Certainly, [mass] transit is big in the district. I take it every day, as do probably every one of my neighbors. So whether it’s the extension of the 7 or fully funding the MTA while keeping fares low, we need to find new revenue sources; a commuter tax or congestion pricing or encouraging other modes of transportation. I’m a strong supporter of cycling lanes. But people who use our city streets, who use our services, need to support the system.
Finally, we have an incredibly rich tech sector. Both Twitter and Google are located in my State Senate district, so we should be exploring ways to encourage entrepreneurship and attract talent to our city for the next generation of industry. We relied on Wall Street for too long — and as trading desks move to places like Singapore Shanghai, New York City needs to find ways to fill that void.
Also in my district is the Alexandria Center [for Life Science], which is a new life sciences hub on the East side, where new companies are moving in — and with the help of the city and state, they’re creating new drugs. The company that makes Tamiflu, that I’ve already taken once this season, is now based in my district. So that’s the future of our tax base, these new technology jobs. The city works to attract these companies by creating excellent public schools, an efficient mass transit system, public parks and cultural opportunities. That’s why young people want to live in New York City. That’s why I moved here as a 27-year-old.