NYC’s voting schedule leads to disenfranchisement

Brooklynites called it “The Great Mistake of 1898,” a term some history aficionados use as more of a joke today. But while the borough’s annexation by New York City was undoubtedly for the best in the long term, a precedent it set disenfranchised nearly one million New Yorkers in 2014 alone — over a century later.

The issue, strangely enough, is our voting schedule. To choose a mayor and other officials for the consolidated city, the first charter set an election for November 1897. We’ve been casting ballots in odd-numbered years ever since.

The contrarian process creates problems when lawmakers move in and out of city government, an occurrence more common in an age of term limits. In 2013, four state Assembly members won seats on the city council, while State Senator Eric Adams picked up the Brooklyn borough presidency. To fill their new roles, they vacated their seats in Albany, leaving large swaths of the city unrepresented in one chamber or the other until January 2015.

As a result, over 800,000 residents of the Bronx and Brooklyn — mainly from poor, minority neighborhoods — did not have a voice in this year’s state budget. Valuable services tied to a legislator’s office, such as help with mortgage foreclosures, were shut down once the member resigned, with all but a skeleton staff let go.

It was even worse for the 40,000 Brooklynites in Crown Heights and Brownsville who had a representative in neither the Assembly nor the State Senate, leaving no one to vouch for their needs.

Vacant state-level districts in Brooklyn, 2014.

Vacant state-level districts in Brooklyn, 2014.

The process happens the other way, too. Three city council members, knowing they’d be barred from running for a fourth term in 2013, sought other offices in 2012. One, James Sanders Jr., won election to the state senate; the other two lost Congressional races.

Those two – Erik Martin Dilan and Charles Barron – both won Assembly seats this past November. It was a bit of a legislative switcheroo: the seats were vacated so that their holders could take Dilan’s and Barron’s places on the city council.

It’s musical chairs run amok, and when the music stops, the people lose.

The discrepancy could rear its head most dramatically in the years around 2021, when 42 of the current 51 members of city council will be ineligible to run again. Granted, not all politicians are so quick to jump ship early. Four city council members who were term-limited out of office in 2013 took a year off, so to speak, before running for other seats this fall.

Advocates for social justice often point the finger at Governor Andrew Cuomo, who cited costs in declining to fill the vacant seats through special elections. The city charter has a provision forcing a special election upon vacancy — the successor to Mr. Sanders was chosen just two months after his resignation — but getting the state to follow suit would require a constitutional amendment, a quixotic undertaking.

While we might be unable to change the way vacancies are handled in Albany, we do have the power to eliminate a key contributor to their existence. My suggestion: give a five-year term to the winners of council and executive seats in 2017, then revert to four-year terms in the 2022 elections. Not only will we reduce underrepresentation by aligning our schedule with those of state and federal offices, the restriction of voting to even-numbered years will undoubtedly save money, too.

We’ll even avoid the anomalous pair of two-year council terms, with voting in 2021 and 2023, to take into account redistricting. We’d need to deal with it in the following decade, but if there’s one thing every politician likes, it’s kicking the can down the road. We should just make sure there’s someone on the receiving end.

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How to use the Central & Prospect Park loops

I went for a run this morning in Prospect Park and was surprised there were no cars on the loop. I guess the pavement, too, celebrates Columbus Day.

Automobiles are allowed in the park for 4 hours each weekday: 7:00-9:00 a.m. northbound and 5:00-7:00 p.m. southbound. Central Park, by contrast, allows vehicles for up to 60 hours a week in certain parts.

That might change. Two members of city council, Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine, just introduced legislation for a 3-month trial to remove cars from Central Park. This comes on the heels of a limited trial in 2013. Prospect Park has yet to be tacked on, but with a number of safe-streets supporters now in the council and the borough president’s office, I’d be surprised if it weren’t.

While we wait to see how that all shakes out, let’s address some confusion that now exists on both loops. Things are much better since the redesign in 2012, but every time I run a lap of Prospect Park, I see people in the wrong places: pedestrians in the car lane, people walking their bikes in the bike lane, skateboarders and rollerbladers in the pedestrian lane. That lack of understanding has caused some notable incidents in our sister park in Manhattan.

I figured I’d use my infamous whiteboard to translate the rules to simpler terms. I leave out some of the technicalities, such as cyclists’ ability to use the car lane to pass, or that most walkers and runners are wearing shoes over their feet. (I did see one guy running completely barefoot this morning.)

Prospect Park loop lanes

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October 8, 2013: the day New York woke up

Sammy Cohen EcksteinA year ago today, Sammy Cohen Eckstein was struck by a van on Prospect Park West. On his way to soccer practice, he had gone into the crosswalk to retrieve an errant ball; his cleat caught something, he fell, and a driver timing the light rumbled through as it turned green. Sammy died later that evening from his injuries.

As with countless other deaths before and since, a memorial was raised, and a family and a community were torn apart. But Sammy’s parents and sister have channeled their grief to become the leading advocates for change to our city’s backward preferential treatment of cars and their drivers.

Due in large part to the efforts of Amy, Gary, and Tamar, a sea change to the city’s approach to livable streets has occurred in the past twelve months. In November, the de Blasio administration and several legislators were elected, in part, on their embrace of Vision Zero; the City Council passed a raft of laws aimed at protecting pedestrians and cyclists; and, most notably, a usually-recalcitrant Albany approved a reduction in the city-wide speed limit, to 25 m.p.h. from 30, along with an increased allowance of speed cameras.

Victims and their relatives have long pushed for safer streets. Mathieu Lefevre’s family has made countless trips to the city from Canada, pressing the NYPD for evidence it had suppressed. Several victims’ kin spoke at a rally at City Hall last August, including the brother of Renee Thompson, the high-school senior from the Bronx who had been killed just a week earlier. The parents of Allison Liao, killed only three days before Sammy, have also become outspoken advocates.

So what made Sammy’s death different?

Amy Cohen (foreground) ensures all is in order for a rally outside Bill de Blasio's inauguration.

Amy Cohen (foreground) ensures all is in order for a rally outside Bill de Blasio’s inauguration.

Surely, his family’s willingness to fight aggressively – through pain and against politics as usual – cannot be understated. They’ve brought rooms of important people to tears, then waited outside other hearings to have difficult conversations with legislators they hadn’t yet converted. They’ve helped form a safe-streets group, and have recounted their tragic story more times than most humans could handle.

On October 8, 2013, however, countless New Yorkers came to terms with an uneasy truth: something like this could happen to them.

None of the usual tropes about pedestrian deaths – the ones that allow most people to shrug their shoulders, write the event off as an “accident,” and move on – applied to Sammy. He wasn’t a kid in some far-off outer-borough neighborhood, or a recently-arrived transplant; he lived on one of the most prestigious streets in Brooklyn, a critical member of a well-liked, well-respected family. His intelligence and good character were beyond question. He hadn’t been behaving recklessly; in fact, he’d done what most of us would have done in his shoes.

He had all of those things going for him; regardless, through a single stroke of bad luck – and a driver inured to a culture of recklessness – he lost his life.

It was so unfair. Of course, as we all know, so much of life is unfair. But when people can see a loved one in that same situation, and when those closest to the victim refuse to quit insisting that something can be done about it, the tragedy changes from a singular event to a long-term call to action.

Fortunately for our city, many have heeded that call.


October 8, 2013: here’s what I wrote that very evening, after witnessing the aftermath of the collision.

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NYT tells Gowanus residents to shut up and enjoy gentrification

NYT Real Estate cover October 5, 2014

Sunday’s Real Estate cover: a study in opposites.

Sunday’s second cover story in the Times Real Estate section, Gowanus Is Counting on a Cleanup, made me seethe. Not only had the writer cribbed all of the local interview subjects from my Metropolitan piece on the cleanup proper, but she also implies that residents should shove their complaints and enjoy everything luxury development has to offer their little community.

First, let’s touch on the title, which falls in the editor’s domain. The cleanup is going to happen, as anyone with even passing familiarity with the issue knows; the Environmental Protection Agency won’t take “no” for an answer, and wields significant powers under Superfund. (So far, the non-city “potentially responsible parties,” of which National Grid is the largest member, have been very cooperative, according to the EPA.)

What Gowanus – and by “Gowanus,” the writer means the developers looking to build humongous condos, not the people living there at present – is counting on is a rezoning to residential (or at least to mixed-use). Whether that will happen is up in the air, although community groups have been unhappy with Council Member Brad Lander’s approach.

Now, for my main journalistic beef. Let’s take a look at the piece’s final paragraph:

For some locals, the influx of shops (and shoppers) is a double-edged sword. “It’s wonderful to be able to walk down streets that you previously wouldn’t have,” said Aleksandra Scepanovic, the managing director of the Ideal Properties Group. “But there is also this fear: Oh no, what does that mean? Am I going to get priced out of my own neighborhood?”

Although this quote is incendiary – imagine it had been said about a black neighborhood – I don’t have a problem with its inclusion. What I do dislike is the attribution of this sentiment to locals. When a writer assigns a feeling to a particular group, you expect to see a quote from a member of that group backing it up; instead, we have someone from the opposing side sharing her view on the virtues of gentrification.

I emailed Linda Mariano, the co-founder of FROGG quoted in both my article and this one, to see what she thought about this comment. “Were there any streets you hadn’t walked down previously?” I asked her. “There are no streets I would not walk down,” she replied.

The juxtaposition with the realtor’s quote screams, “Hey, I couldn’t find any locals who agreed with this assertion, so I’m going to pull in a biased source to tell them why they should!” Here’s a parallel example:

For some climate-change activists, the drier weather is a double-edged sword. “It’s wonderful to be able to count on your baseball game not being rained out,” said Joe Schmo, vice president of Koch Industries. “But there is also this fear: Oh no, what does that mean? Is this going to ruin the planet?”

Keep in mind this is the same section that brought you not only the inane piece on the “longtime” Williamsburg residents (read: since 2007!) priced out of their adopted home, but – on the very same cover as this Gowanus piece – a rueful elegy to the dying hyper-luxury market that has fueled real-estate coverage for so long. Let the left hand know not what the right is doing, I suppose.

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Los Angeles to pedestrians: why bother?

I’ve disliked the car culture of Los Angeles for a long time – even before I understood terms like induced demand or externality.

I was 18 the first time I came here, in town to compete on the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Although I was confined mostly to the hotel and the Sony lot, the most indelible part of that trip – beyond the contestant experience, of course – was how to get anywhere I had to either slink along in traffic (if I took a taxi or bus) or cross eight lanes of pavement (if I dared to walk to get some food).

Since then, I’ve returned seven or eight times. The third time, I was barely 21 and, of course, all I wanted to do was go to some LA bars with my friends. We had to draw straws each night to see who’d be the designated driver. That was a lot of fun, let me tell you.

A little over a decade after my first trip, I’m here for another Tournament of Champions, this time as an observer. I’m crashing with one of the contestants at the Hilton in Universal City, near Hollywood. If we want food, we have to eat at the overpriced restaurant or walk 20 minutes via a sketchy highway underpass.

I’ve been running for about four years now. When I came to visit a friend in Malibu last year, someone picked me up in her car and we’d drive somewhere to run. (Imagine that: having to drive to get somewhere to do exercise!)

This time, I don’t have a car, so I have to make do with what’s at my fingertips. I saw it was about four miles round trip to get to Hollywood Reservoir, from where I figured I’d be able to see the famous sign. It was a worthy trip.

In theory, anyway – read on >>

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Clearing up some facts about Lightstone’s Gowanus agreement

The Carroll Street Bridge.

The Carroll Street Bridge.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had reached an agreement with The Lightstone Group regarding remediation work on LSG’s 700-unit Gowanus development. The $20 million cleanup is needed to remove various contaminants in the soil, including petroleum from a gas plant that blew up in 1870 and kept the site off-limits for decades.

One reason you don’t see a lot written on the cleanup of the Gowanus: the process is absurdly wonky. The Record of Decision, which lays out the EPA’s findings and the plan for fixing the canal, is over 1,000 pages long if you include the appendices.

This turns off a lot of reporters, which is a shame, because it’s a topic that deserves to be understood. I tried to do this for my New York Times feature on Eymund Diegel, one of several residents invested in cleaning up the canal the right way.

The short version of EPA’s involvement: the $500 million cleanup, slated to be completed in 2022, will be funded by the 39 entities who were (or whose predecessors were) responsible for the canal’s sordid condition. The City of New York and gas conglomerate National Grid will foot the largest portions.

Lightstone had nothing to do with the current situation, and this agreement gives the developer protection from lawsuits relating to previously existing pollution. (This doesn’t extend to any future damage for which Lightstone might be responsible.) The EPA is not suing or penalizing Lightstone in any way.

The boat launch for the Gowanus Dredgers.

The boat launch for the Gowanus Dredgers.

The important distinction between federal and state oversight went missing in all of the articles I read. Federal Superfund only concerns water-bound pollution, not pollution on land; that falls to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), which operates the Brownfield Cleanup Program. Developers can receive tax breaks in return for (voluntarily, to some extent) addressing  issues with the soil.

Lightstone was already doing some cleanup of its toxic grounds; for weeks, neighbors complained of noxious odors that kept them up at night. The $20 million figure includes much of the cost Lightstone was likely already planning to spend. The EPA got involved because a failure to completely clean the soil could re-contaminate the canal.

The initial reaction I got from the residents with whom I spoke was positive. They’re thrilled in particular that the development will be subject to stricter federal standards and oversight. Each had some quibbles, and I trust they will submit their comments to the EPA before the October 8 deadline.

Here’s a line I had in my original draft for my Times piece:

… the various parties interviewed agreed that EPA has been transparent and open to suggestions, with Linda Mariano of FROGG labeling the agency “a gift to the community.”

The EPA has been doing great work in this neighborhood. Their approach is proceeding as planned, despite some disagreements with the city. It’s more than a little sad, then, when people writing about the situation get the story entirely wrong.

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Grand Army Plaza’s traffic is worse than usual today

Park Nope. No-Park Slope. Two nicknames tell you all you need to know about cars in this hypergentrified neighborhood: there are too many, and they suck up a lot of property value.

Last week, NYC DOT milled Prospect Park West, home to one of Brooklyn’s most popular bike lanes. Today, it began to repave some of the chewed-up pavement, closing the entire street in the process.

Grand Army Plaza PPW paving traffic - 09

For that preliminary activity, DOT funneled vehicles into a single lane, and traffic was pretty bad. Today, it’s insane. Looking down Flatbush Avenue toward downtown Brooklyn from Grand Army Plaza, there’s a row of cars as far as the eye can see.

Click for more traffic porn >>

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