Monday, February 11, 2008

Stringer on Changing Manhattan and Possibly Changing Offices

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Stringer on Changing Manhattan and Possibly Changing Offices

City Hall
February 11th, 2008

Scott Stringer has been busy in his two years as Manhattan borough president so far, gaining notice for some of the changes he has made to the office. At the Jan. 29 On/Off the Record Breakfast at the Commerce Bank location on Broadway and Warren Street, Stringer discussed why he thinks those changes matter, what he still wants to do, and where his thoughts currently stand on his 2009 political plans, among other topics. What follows is an edited transcript.

Q: The office of borough president obviously has fewer powers since the charter reforms of 20 years ago. How much time do you and your staff spend thinking about innovative ways to use the bully pulpit that you do have to get results?

A: 1989 was 20 years ago. We buried the Board of Estimate, but we didn’t bury every other city office that we have. The reality is that without a Board of Estimate, that era is gone. When you look and examine the City Charter, as we did when I started to run for borough president, there is influence and power in these city offices. What specific power may have been there is in the past, but what do you have right now? And then the personality of the office you create is the office that then has influence.

Q: How do you use that influence in trying to meet developers’ proposals on community concerns?

A: My job is to make sure that the development community and City Hall are connected to the local residents. And what used to happen is that community board appointments were basically given out to people who supported you for borough president, and I realized that when I got 26 percent of the vote, I couldn’t stack the community board, so I had to do something. So we said let’s do community board reform and make new friends.

Basically what we did, by setting up the merit based system, we’re now seeing the results of that. And part of what we’re now doing, as it relates to affordable housing, is we’re not just stopping at land use and zoning, but we’re trying to think out of the box and think big about what sites are available for affordable housing.

You know, everybody said to me, “You can’t build affordable housing in Manhattan. It’s done. You can’t build schools in Manhattan, there’s no more vacant land.” We actually did a study and went borough-wide and we found 2,400 sites that were vacant. Abandoned buildings and vacant lots. 50 percent of those sites were above 110th Street.

Think about it. In the ‘70s, those sites were city-owned, but because of the red hot economy and the improvement over multiple mayors now, they’re not staying vacant. So what do we do about it? One, we need an inventory, and I’ve asked Mayor Bloomberg to do an inventory citywide.

Boston counts its vacant property every year and they crack down on people who keep property vacant. We in the city, we count homeless people every year. Yet we don’t count our vacant lots.

Someday, we should take our homeless people and put them in affordable housing. We have now asked Councilman Yassky to introduce legislation to mandate the city to do such a thing, modeled after the Boston program.

We have 2,400 vacant lots and buildings in Manhattan that can actually create 24,000 affordable housing units.

Q:There are people who feel that community boards have too much of a say over development sometimes. What would you say to them?

A: I have to tell you, in the two years I’ve been borough president, I have not seen a developer roll his eyes about the community boards. What they used to worry about was that they couldn’t relate to the community board members. And because we have gone to a merit based process, where we’re bringing in more engineers and architects and younger people onto the boards, there’s a better dialogue.

Q: Next year you will face a choice: run for what would likely be an easy re-election for borough presidency, and then be term-limited out off-cycle in 2013, or run for something citywide. How much time do you spend thinking about that decision?

A: I think about it everyday. I think sometimes we make too much of all this. First of all, today’s off-cycle is tomorrow’s on-cycle. Politics is fluid, and things change, so you can’t think about this. The one thing I’m committed to doing is, we really have this huge menu, every campaign promise we set out to do.

You know, we had this 117-page manifesto that we published online about all the work we would do with the borough presidency. But part of the downside of term limits is that you can’t let it take you over. You can’t be one of the folks who says, “I’m not gonna work anymore. I’ll just raise millions of dollars because I’ve got to run for something.” And then they spend four years of the second term just raising money and doing things like that.

Q: But you are raising money. There are a lot of people who assume that you want to run for public advocate next year. Are they wrong?

A: A lot of people have said to us, and I don’t want to say there’s a draft movement citywide, but people have said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to take a lot of the work you’ve done in Manhattan and apply it citywide?”

You asked that question as well: are there things that we can accomplish beyond Manhattan? Of course we’re going to be interested in that. Of course we’re going to ask people’s opinions. I think that’s a job that has to be molded and re-shaped to be more effective, because every job you’re supposed to do as a new office holder... You want a mayor who’s going to do better than Mike Bloomberg, a public advocate that’ll do better than Betsy, and a comptroller better than Bill Thompson. And I hope there will be a borough president who will do a better job than I will, but I have nothing to do with that. We’re not there yet in terms of doing that, and I’ve already got the greatest job in the world. I mean, being Manhattan borough president, working with the people in this borough is a magical experience.

Q: You made mention of changes you might want to see in the Public Advocate’s office. Can you speak specifically about some of those?

A: I was a Betsy Gotbaum opponent, but I happen to think she is one of the most genuine people I know. And when I work with her on issues relating to children and education, she is really focused like a laser beam. Her disadvantage as public advocate is being in an office with that give and take, where there has to be some kind of disagreement at some point with the mayor because you’re supposed to look at agencies and things like that. How do you do that without having your budget slashed and destroyed? The reality is that the public advocate’s job will always be problematic as long as the mayor and the Council decide your budget. That’s something we have to look at. The budget can’t be dependent on the mayor and the Council. I should have a base to operate from so I can maintain independence. This is a reform that is needed in this office. And then I think, if you’re going to make this office really work, let’s do what we did with the borough presidency. Let’s look in the Charter, look at what’s available in the Charter and then help bring that out.

Q: Yes or no—do you have a timetable for making a decision about next year?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell us what it is?

A: No

Q: You spent 13 years in the Assembly. Would you ever think about going back to Albany, in some other role?

A: Are you kidding?

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