Preview: District 33 Transpo Smackdown

Tonight’s candidate forum for the 33rd City Council district, which covers the Brooklyn neighborhoods closest to the East River, bears special significance for livable streets policy.
Outgoing rep David Yassky was an early supporter of congestion pricing
in the City Council and later carried the banner for the Bicycle Access
Bill, which passed earlier this summer. Will the next council member from the 33rd build on that legacy?

kent_ave_clowns.jpgTonight’s debate: Come for the bike lane drama, stay for the discussion of parking policy. Photo: Brooklyn Paper.

Five of the seven debaters filled out Transportation Alternatives’ candidate survey: Isaac Abraham, Ken Baer, Ken Diamondstone, Jo Anne Simon, and Evan Thies. They’ll be joined by Doug Biviano and Stephen Levin at the debate. All are vying for the Democratic nomination (primary day: September 15th). The action gets underway at 7:00 p.m. at 50 Bedford Avenue, in the auditorium of the non-aptly named Automotive High School.

To get a sense of the hot transportation topics in the district, especially the North Brooklyn neighborhoods closest to tonight’s venue, Streetsblog spoke to Teresa Toro, chair of Brooklyn CB1’s Transportation Committee, and Michael Freedman-Schnapp of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.

Here’s what they want the candidates to address tonight:

Bike and pedestrian safety. Streetsblog readers are familiar with the twists and turns of the Kent Avenue bike lane saga. In a district that includes approaches to all three of Brooklyn’s East River bridges, it’s probably not the last such dispute we’ll see. "There’s a clear need in the district to continue to improve biking infrastructure and to make walking safer," said Freedman-Schnapp, noting that, in addition to the bridge approaches, corridors like McGuinness Boulevard have particular safety deficiencies that need to be addressed. The fact that all three bridges remain free, Toro reminded us, attracts a disproportionate amount of traffic to the district and discourages people from biking and walking.

Truck traffic. As the latest Kent Avenue dust-up has made apparent, truck traffic is a big issue in North Brooklyn. "Truck-generating uses are important employment sources in the neighborhood," said Freedman-Schnapp, but management and enforcement of truck routes are lacking. For some sharp insight into how better truck route planning can address some of the complaints arising from Kent Avenue’s conversion to one-way flow, check out this post from neighborhood blog Brooklyn 11211.

Too much parking, not enough planning. Williamsburg and Greenpoint have seen a spike in car-oriented development since a 2005 rezoning took effect. Thanks in large part to Department of City Planning parking minimums, thousands of new units have been built with more space allotted to parking compared to the existing urban fabric, causing a surge in traffic volumes.

"The rezoning had no transportation plan," said Freedman-Schnapp. "They analyzed the impacts. They had this very thick EIS. Then nothing happened to address those impacts."

The EIS badly misjudged the transportation impacts of the rezoning, Toro said, calling the end result a huge missed opportunity. "The area around the Bedford Avenue station is prime real estate because of its proximity to transit. You have such a clear demonstration of people preferring transit, and yet they’re being handed the option of car ownership." She wants to know whether the candidates support studying traffic-calming improvements and enhanced bus-to-subway connections to relieve the area’s growing traffic pressures.

The traffic trouble unleashed by abundant residential parking figures
to intensify if projects like the Domino Sugar factory redevelopment
where 70 percent of luxury units are slated to include parking, according to Freedman-Schnapp —
proceed as planned. It will be interesting to see where the candidates stand on reforming the city’s parking requirements.

Transit crowding, transit funding. Crowding on the L train is reaching Lexington Avenue line proportions, said Freedman-Schnapp, and even northbound G service can get cramped in the morning — problems that ultimately boil down to how well we fund our transit system. "[The candidates] can yell at the MTA all they want," he said, "but when it comes down to it, they need more money to improve service, so where’s the money going to come from?"

  • Larry Littlefield

    The big issue in this district is all the abandoned, half built projects. Should the city help fund their completion? Should it wait until developers and their lenders have taken their full loss first? If the government intercedes, who decides who will get access to those units, based on what criteria, and under what terms?

    My view — wait for the bankruptcy auction, rather than have the governmetn take part of the loss. The auction price should be low enough for the city or its pension funds to get a very high yield on a construction loan to a new developer that would nonetheless be able to rent the units at low price and make a profit. Those low rents will bring down market rents elsewhere. Meanwhile, enforce the building code.

  • Shemp

    Interviewing two people with a Williamsburg POV doesn’t do the rest of the Council district much justice given issues like Atlantic Yards and traffic congestion in and around downtown Brooklyn.

    Also, while Levin didn’t respond to the T.A. survey, it’s not the only game in town. He was endorsed by NY League of Conservation Voters and talks about transportation policy extensively in his responses to that org.

  • B Boro

    My take on some of these characters’ T.A. survey responses:

    Thiess – windy resume, easy rhetoric on transit issues the Council has no influence over. Seems unaware of the project proposed for Adams & Tillary. Good stuff on traffic law enforcement. Says he was a consultant for EDF re: congestion pricing and Pratt re: BRT which is great, but people should definitely put this position on pricing in their files in case the issue ever comes around again. Waffles on issue of parking and zoning in favor of residential parking permit, which strikes me as NIMBY motor-populist and basically not too usefule without a broader policy like pricing to reduce driving. Seems to support current NYCDOT bike/ped work but will be interesting to hear take on Kent Ave.

    Abraham – Appears to mainly view traffic issues through old-school cops and fines prism, could use an editor. Opposes congestion pricing, seems to misunderstand zoning/parking question. All power to the Community Boards!

    Simon – another windy resume. Most important issue is cross-jurisdictional planning! Hedges on support for city proposal to calm Adams & Tillary. Wants lower speed limit which is great, also seems genuinely engaged with question on public health & walking/cycling. Says she is a big congestion pricing supporter but my recollection is that the Downtown Brooklyn/Boerum hill civic/NIMBY groups she is associated with came very late to supporting Bloomberg’s plan if they were not in fact opposed. Certainly didn’t do jack to kick Millman etc. into gear. Again with residential parking permits. Wants residential and merchant “buy-in” for all NYC DOT projects, reflecting origins in civic groups that want veto over city action. Is this much different from Abraham’s position? Seems misinformed about Montreal bike sharing, which is expanding ahead of schedule.

    Diamondstone – it would be nice if these people could provide a one paragraph resume. Bikes as most important issue. Likes city’s Tillary-Adams plan. Seems like he would champion traffic law enforcement, more active lifestyles. Pro-pricing. Answers zoning question well without the diversion into residential permits. Everyone is for BRT which again Sblog readers should file for when the rubber hits the road.

    Baer – F and G subway service most important, along with parking permits. Not aware of city’s Adams/Tillary project, needs a spell check. Good on speeding. Would start walking clubs. Worked to advance Bloomberg pricing plan. Straightforward answers on reducing parking zoning requirements and allocating more bike/ped space. Main bike share benefit is exercise/health.

  • ms nomer

    Shemp: Take a look at who’s on the NYLCV board and you’ll see why Levin got the nod, though he has a zero record on environmental issues. “Vito” Power strikes again.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    In this race, Evan Thies and Jo Anne Simon are the only two candidates to really look at if you care about livable streets, traffic and transpo issues and you want to get behind a potential winner. Here’s my assessment:

    Evan did yeoman’s work during the congestion pricing debate. He and the Pratt Center were some of the only advocates out there actively working to get low income and minority New Yorkers to put their political muscle behind congestion pricing and bus rapid transit. I think Evan and Pratt had some of the best political strategy out there on these issues. Unfortunately, the Mayor’s people and the Campaign for NY’s Future were focused on… asthma. Evan is a Gen X or Y’er. I think that matters. He is of a generation that grew up with environmental concerns paramount. He worked for David Yassky who has been the best Council member on these issues over the last five years. I like that too.

    Jo Anne came late to the game on congestion pricing and couched her support in a variety of qualifiers and disclaimers. Likewise, on Atlantic Yards, Jo Anne was slow, cautious and not particularly outspoken until it was safe to be against the project. Jo Anne is closely associated with Joan Millman. They kind of go hand in hand. No State Assembly person was more disappointing and lame during the congestion pricing debate than Millman. Jo Anne clearly did nothing to move Millman on these issues. Years ago, Jo Anne was good on the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project and she’s been generally supportive of bike/ped stuff. But those are the easy issues. She strikes me as old guard — more of a traditional, 20th century NYC Community Board liberal than a 21st century, Obama-era, environmental progressive.

    So, I think Thies is the clear favorite here. My fear is that Thies and Simon will split the Bklyn Hts / Park Slope vote and allow Vito’s boy Levin to win this in Williamsburg.

    If only Evan were Jewish.

  • Shemp

    I assumed anyone following this race knew that Levin is the Vito Lopez machine candidate. Levin doesn’t exactly hide his ties in his own material.

    I was just pointing out that he is on record on Streetsblog-related issues despite his dumb oversight of failing to return the T.A. q’airre, to the extent that any of these pre-election positions on paper matter.

    But Ms. Nomer, what is your point about the LCV board? I know some of the names but am not versed in the inner workings of the Brooklyn Dem machine.

  • ms nomer

    Shemp: Agreed on the dumbness of anyone failing to return the questionnaire. None of the candidates can afford to snub a group like TA, which has a large constituency (and which I suspect actually votes). About the LCV, Ken Fisher is the NYC Chapter head. He’s a former Councilman from the 33rd District (preceding Yassky) with strong ties to the Lopez machine and is a major rep/apologist/shill for developers and other business interests throughout Brooklyn.

    I disagree with Marty Barfowitz’ take on Simon v. Thies. It’s hard to say where Thies stands personally; all his pro-congesting pricing was done as an employee. As Brooklyn Community Board One’s enviro chair, he had a ready-made platform to push the advocacy envelope, but did little more than push Sanitation to reduce street cleaning days so there’d be more parking. Meanwhile the CB-1 area remains challenged by numerous environmental challenges like brownfields, the oil spill and other major issues, and he was a silent voice. So in terms of actually advocating for the community, his record is zero.

    Simon’s been around the block a few times and perhaps her age doesn’t appeal to more youthful GenYers, but as a private citizen she’s done a heckuva lot, like helping win the community’s plan for the Gowanus Expressway EIS, pursuing better truck policies, and demanding bridge toll equity for years before Michael Bloomberg ever heard the words “congestion pricing.” I’d suggest taking another good look at her record, which is long, strong and consistent.

  • Moses Horwitz

    I know the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, but don’t blame Simon for Millman’s lameness on congestion pricing. I know first hand that Simon tried to educate Millman, but without success.

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