District 39 Council Candidates Talk BQE, Schools and Gowanus Rezoning

District 39 Council Candidates Talk BQE, Schools and Gowanus Rezoning
L-R Top row: West, Hanif, Schneider; bottom row: Haq, Krebs, Rein

Candidates for Brooklyn’s Council District 39 (Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Windsor Terrace) gathered virtually Thursday night to talk about issues ranging from the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Gowanus rezoning to school reopenings and composting.

At a forum hosted by the Cobble Hill Association and the District-39 Participatory Budgeting Committee, six candidates looking to replace term-limited Council Member Brad Lander introduced themselves and their vision for the district.

City Council District 39.

Those candidates were former Lander staffer Shahana Hanif; organizer Brandon West; attorney and district leader Doug Schneider; former teachers union lobbyist Briget Rein; MoveOn staffer Justin Krebs; and community health worker Mamnun Haq.

Though the candidates were collegial at the forum, the competition for the seat is intense. All the candidates except Haq have raised over $45,000 in private contributions, and four of them have maxed out on public matching funds.

Lander, who is now running for city comptroller, has stayed neutral in the race, but several major unions, advocacy groups, and political clubs have weighed in, including the Democratic Socialists of America (West), the Working Families Party (Hanif), the United Federation of Teachers (Rein) and the Brooklyn Young Democrats (Schneider).

The two-hour event, which you can watch in full on Youtube, touched on far too many topics to cover here, but below are a few excerpts from the candidates’ remarks at the forum.

On the reconstruction of the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

West wants to bury the roadway underground but said doing so will “cost a lot of money and require a lot of complicated planning.” He said the project is something “the city can’t do on its own” and called on state legislators to push for new revenue sources by increasing taxes on the wealthy. He also suggested the creation of an “Office of Community Planning” that could engage adjacent communities in “a long-term, more collaborative way” rather than “an up-down vote from a couple people in the room.”

Haq called the BQE is “a disaster” and said fixing it would be a “long-term process.” He wants the Council and the federal government to put “more money toward the project.”

Krebs said roadways like the BQE were “gashes that cut across neighborhoods… often along racial and economic lines.” Referencing President Joe Biden’s campaign slogan, Krebs said he wants to “build back better’ with “visions of burying it underground, visions of creating open space above it.” He said there was a “lack of imagination” by city leaders for not piloting programs on the roadway while traffic was reduced early in the pandemic.

Schneider wants the reconstruction to be a “wholesale transformative solution that fundamentally changes the intersection between the BQE and the neighborhoods that surround it.” He wants to “highlight parks and pedestrian walkways” while protecting historic neighborhoods but said that wouldn’t happen without “engaging local community every step of the way.”

Rein would focus on preserving the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which she said has “a great history in our communities.” [ed. note: The Promenade is located outside of the District] She said local traffic patterns would be “oppressive once construction starts” and was concerned about emissions from redirecting vehicles onto local streets. She said she would work with federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the state to ensure sufficient funding for reconstruction and would organize community meetings.

Hanif wants to “center the community process” to ensure it is “transparent and accountable” and follows a “co-governing model.” She said there needs to be “a real plan to address the environmental impact” from traffic and noise pollution during construction, but also said she would push to improve pedestrian access to the Promenade, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Van Voorhees Playground. She also wants to ensure adjacent small businesses are protected during the process.

On supporting small businesses

Hanif said small businesses need rent relief in the form of “grants” and “retrofitting… to ensure they’ve got proper PPE and proper protection for their workers.” She also said she wants to protect employees from “deep economic injustice” through “legislation that ensures workers are not fired without just cause.” She said she would propose an “undocumented worker bill of rights” to prevent worker deportations.

Rein called herself “a firm believer” in rent subsidies for small businesses and for property tax reductions for landlords so that they “promote and enhance and create” small businesses. She said she would work with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (who endorsed Rein) to ensure businesses are “well-protected and unionized.” She also said she would have a staffer “in constant communications with businesses” and BIDs like the Park Slope 5th Avenue BID.

Schneider believes, “every dollar that we can keep in a business’ pocket is one step closer to staying alive.” He said commercial rent control is a “vitally important part of that,” as is “getting rid of the incentives” that encourage landlords to keep commercial spaces vacant. He also said the city should get rid of its “fine-based regulation system” that penalizes businesses for minor infractions.

Krebs said, “the whole city is built around neighborhoods” that require “safe streets, open spaces and supporting small businesses” to thrive. He would introduce programs that offer “capital, rent support, [and] legal support both in the pandemic and beyond.”

Haq called small businesses “the backbone of our economy” and supports rent stabilization for retail businesses “as soon as possible.” He also wants to eliminate the liquor tax in New York City and ensure “workers and low-income people are not suffering.”

West referenced a program in Catalonia, Spain, in which the government temporarily seizes control of long-vacant apartments and rents them as affordable housing. However, he said “there would probably be some legal challenges” in applying the concept to New York’s retail spaces. He said he would support retail rent stabilization and the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and also emphasized the need for worker protections.

On whether they support the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan rezoning

West: “No.”

Haq: “No.”

Scheider: “Not as of yet.”

Rein: “No way.”

Hanif: “No.”

Krebs: “If the deal breakers are met, yes.” (Krebs later told Bklyner he was referring to proposals from the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice advocacy group.)

On whether they support a proposal to rezone elementary schools in School District 15

All candidates said yes.

On what they would focus on first if elected

West said, “we’re going to be dealing with whatever form of austerity battle we’re already having right now.” He said it would be important to “center community needs” in future budget fights. He also wants to focus on “massive land-use policy changes, which I think would require charter revision,” and school desegregation.

Haq wants to focus on “workers’ rights,” citing his work organizing taxi drivers. Thousands of drivers and their families are suffering, he said, “and we need to bring this business back.” He would fight for medallion debt forgiveness and ensure gig workers “are classified as employees.” He also suggested adding a cost to the meter for cabs and for-hire rides that would fund driver “health and wellness initiatives.”

Krebs said schools are the center of the campaign, specifically “raising the alarm to get us back to five days a week,” though he hopes schools are already open by the time he would take office in 2022. His top three priorities are “schools, vibrant main streets, and climate.”

Schneider identified his top priority as the “fight to reinvest” in public schools “with an equitable distribution of resources.” He said traffic safety “has to be addressed right away” by protecting cyclists and pedestrians with “cohesive networks of bike lanes” and by reducing “mid-day truck deliveries, double parking and constant obstruction of bike lanes.” He wants to increase the use of speed and red-light cameras. He also wants to eliminate excessive fines and ever-increasing taxes for small businesses while pushing for commercial rent control.

Rein said, “We really need to talk about” COVID relief. She wants to propose something akin to a “9/11 fund for COVID relief work” and giving families of victims as well as small businesses financial relief. She also said, “we have to make sure nursing homes get their fair share.” Rein wants to create a “community learning school” that offers “wrap-around services” in District 15 and ensure programs like Positive Learning Collaborative, Dial-a-Teacher, and teacher centers are in the budget.

Hanif believes “we really need to figure out what mobile community services look like” during the pandemic. She wants to create a “meet your council member in the park” program and hire a constituent services team of “local talent, folks that speak multiple languages who are trained in social work” and “de-escalation tools.” Hanif also discussed building out a “rapid response team” to provide translation services to non-English speakers and restore participatory budgeting. She also mentioned rezoning and legalizing basement apartments.

The primary election is June 22nd.

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