The New York City Community Boards – the 50 member panels forming the hyper-local level of city government – are accepting applications until Monday, February 22. For nearly half a century, the Boards have served as a go-to resource for residents who need help from the city government, and they also serve an advisory role to city decision-making including land use, zoning, and project funding. Though many of their functions have recently been duplicated by the launch of the citywide 311 system, advocates around the city continue to laud local community boards for their personal, human service and their role as the first line of community advocacy – while the 311 system is mired in criticism.
Last week, Sheepshead Bites teamed up with BK Southie to pick the mind of Theresa Scavo, the Chairperson of Board 15 (Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen Beach, and Manhattan Beach). We discussed the importance of the Boards to the communities they serve, the benefits of community service, and where Boards need to be strengthened. Scavo has been a member of Community Board 15 since the 1990s, and has been the Chair since 2006, a run she described as “sometimes weird but always rewarding.”
If you don’t know what Community Boards are, or you’re interested in getting involved in your community’s future, this interview is the place to start.
How did you originally get involved with Community Board 15?
In the early 1990’s, I received a “Notice To Affected Residents” at my home. The notice was sent to all residents within a 400 square foot radius alerting us to the variance being sought by Torah Academy of Brooklyn. The TAB Academy was seeking to enlarge the school on to the front yard with portable classrooms. They also had plans to add several stories to the building. Let me begin by saying the building in question was an existing synagogue that was sold unknown to anyone on the block. Then we found out that this school was for high school boys who had some issues. The boys came from broken homes or just couldn’t survive in traditional classroom settings. Many of the neighbors took that to mean trouble-makers.
The first hearing was at the school. The meeting became loud, and a shouting match ensued. The next meeting was at Community Board 15. Some 30 to 40 neighbors attended the meeting. I was shocked to say the least, when speaking was limited to a few speakers and not everyone who came prepared to speak was allowed to voice an opinion. The Board seemed bored and disinterested, and some of the Board Members were outwardly rude.
At the time, I had a store in Lundy’s and Congressman Weiner had an office upstairs. The day after I witnessed my first Community Board meeting, I met one of the Congressmen’s aides in the hallway. I said to him, “I was shocked to see who represents me and my community on the Community Board. They are not representative of the real community. Most of the members were elderly, and did not seem to be paying the slightest bit of attention to the proceedings.”
His response was “Did you ever volunteer to be a member, or step up to the plate to do anything for the community?” When I thought about it, he was absolutely right. How could I criticize those who were giving of their time when I never even tried?
What are the big issues you’ve faced since you’ve been on the Board?
The downzoning of Sheepshead Bay and Homecrest. Brigham Street’s proposed restaurant. The hotel on Kings Highway and East 9th Street. The Mikvah on Avenue R. The Mosque on Voorhies Avenue. The sanitation violation surge.
Why is it important for residents to join the Community Board?
If you love where you live and want to remain for an extended time, you should want a voice in what happens there. If your child attends a neighborhood school, wouldn’t you want to know if a drug halfway house was being constructed on the same block? If your family’s home was on a block where the sidewalk is so cracked that you fear for your family’s safety, wouldn’t you want the connection to try and have it fixed? The Community Board is a wealth of knowledge. The Office of Emergency Management alerts the office if there is a water main problem or a fire or a storm coming. The Board hears everything. Anything going on or planned the Board knows.
Anyone who cares should become involved. There is no greater satisfaction than doing good for your community and the ones you love. Making our community a better place for our children to call home. If you sit home watching TV you never will know what is going on in the community and will never have a say in what is planned. Look around you: do you want to wake up and find a sushi restaurant or a strip club next door? Be informed and aware of what is about to happen so maybe we can change it or stop it before it happens. You cannot cry when it is too late. Speak up now or hold your tongue later. If we step up to the plate maybe we can win a few, but if we sit it out we cannot complain tomorrow.
Any thoughts for people that are thinking about applying to their Community Board?
I was a retail merchant for more than 25 years. I enjoyed working with the public and servicing my customers, but there is no greater reward than seeing someone smile because a tree was planted in a spot that laid dormant for many years. Or when someone comes over after a meeting and thanks you for trying to save their block from overdevelopment. I have learned many things over the last few years about city government and its inner workings, and I now know we must all put in some time to ensure quality of life in our community. The rewards truly outweigh the amount of time needed to make a difference. If we all work together our community will be one we could all be proud to call home.
The Community Board is made up of 50 of the residents of our community or someone who has a business in the district. We are the people who live here, shop here, and drive the streets in the district. I believe we are the ones who know how the residents drive and what streets are the most used, where stop signs are needed, where signals should be placed. We are the ones who know what bars should have a liquor license and where it is feasible to have a cafe on the sidewalk. Yet, the City of New York believes we do not know what is best for our community.
Where do you think you’ve been able to make the biggest change in the district?
The Community Board is purely advisory. When City Planning came forth with the downzoning proposal, we did not believe it was enough. The Zoning Committee tried to get more, but City Planning has an equation that they use. When they downzoned several blocks in Plumb Beach, they upzoned Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Avenue. They believe these wide avenues could accomodate high density buildings. I do not believe they did enough. They made it easier for developers to come and build highrises along Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Avenue.
Community Board 15 has tried to keep an equal balance of commercial and retail along those special corridors in the community. Coney Island Avenue is one. Sahara Restaurant applied several years ago for a variance on his building and got a zoning change to allow a larger catering facility. But the variance also allowed for a large residential use. The board as well as many community residents fought this through the ULURP (Editor’s note: Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process. I testified at each hearing and it passed anyway. Sahara could make a high rise residental building which would change the look of Coney Island Avenue from a commercial strip to a residential one. This is how the face of our community could change overnight.
I believe my biggest change is fighting for the law to be followed. I do not believe a person should break the law. If the law needs to be changed, first fight to change the law and then do whatever you like. A prime example is Cherry Hill. He knew for a long time he needed a use variance from City Planning. I told him more than a year before he opened. So, why break the law or try to bend it when the choice should have been to change the law?
On what issues can Community Boards be most influential?
The Community Board could have a lot more influence on quality of life issues if we had a full accounting of the issues. 311 will not release the call numbers to the Boards. If we had a record of the calls and the complaints received we could look for a pattern. As of today the only information we receive are what is called the Hanson reports which give the 311 complaints only for DEP issues. Because of that, now I know we have a sewer back-up problem in the district. I have had many meetings with reps of DEP trying to find out why we have such a high number every month. Then, the Community Board could solicit budget requests for repairs on the sewers. As a Community Board member you have a relationship with elected officials and have the contacts needed to ask for funding for projects. If the Board knew where potholes were being reported, we could do a follow-up and if the time frame is too long we could call it in to our reps and speed up the process.
Where do you think Boards do not have enough say?
Community Boards should have a greater say in many things. First, liquor licenses. We see things in the community that the State Liquor Authority does not see. We know the bars that are trouble and serve minors. We know the bars that have after-hour drinking and disturb the entire neighborhood with young people hanging around outside, smoking, and making noise while residents are trying to sleep. Yet, the Liquor Authority disregards our recommendations and renews or issues licenses to law-breaking individuals. We had a bar in our community that had two cash boxes behind the bar: one for liquor and one for drugs sold. The police raided the place several times, and even after the Community Board alerted the Liquor Authority to the illegal activity they renewed the license. The Community Board, in cooperation with NYPD, should be able to put a case together to stop the Liquor Authority from issuing licenses to these individuals who violate the ABC laws. The Liquor Authority does not have the man power to check each and every establishment that has the ability to dispense alcohol so they should take the words of the Community Board and NYPD seriously and not issue these licenses with indifference.
The Community Board should have a greater say in any license issued. Example: a sidewalk cafe license, a vendor license, a sidewalk display license. All these impact our community and the way we live. Imagine trying to maneuver with a wheelchair or baby carriage and a restaurant or cafe has tables spread across the sidewalk. Imagine Avenue U, with the fruit stands and food carts blocking the sidewalk and you are in a wheelchair unable to make your way down the street. Making your way along many of our streets is a horror even when you are not in a wheelchair or pushing a baby carriage. The Community Board and its members know the trouble spots in the community that are overcrowded and should not be allowed to have permits for sidewalk obstructions. Yet, the city discounts the opinion of the Community Board even when we try and say if you issue this permit it will interfere with the quality of life of the area residents. I believe certain of the crowded areas in our community should be no vendor zones, which would prohibit street vendors from setting up shop in our community.
The Community Board should also have the biggest say in land use items such as ULURP and Special Permits. Currently, our vote is purely advisory and really doesn’t count when the issuing is done. That is insane. Who knows better than us what is needed in our community and what makes our community special? I believe our vote should count. When it comes to the building of a multi-level building, shouldn’t we, the area residents, have a say and make our vote stand for something? We know if more residential units are needed or if this is just another developer trying to make a quick buck. If a zoning change is needed why should we go along if we do not believe it is the right thing for our community. Yet, that is the way it is today. I believe the Community Board should have a vote that counts for something. On a ULURP, there should be 5 votes, 1 for the Community Board, 1 for the Borough President, 1 for the City Planning Commission and 2 for the City Council. The ULURP would need a 3 point score to pass. This would give an opportunity for us to have a say.
The BSA items for special permits or variances, as well as appeals on extensions or vesting, should not be able to be passed without the Community Board approving. These are usually special cases that we, the area residents, know better than anyone which should be granted.
On the structure of the Board, the Chairperson and District Manager should have the ability to ask for board member removal and also for the appointment of new board members. The Chairperson and District Manager have close contact with many area residents who participate at monthly meetings and are involved in area issues. These individuals should be given spots on the board. The Borough President and the City Councilmembers who appoint members sometimes do not know who the interested and responsible area residents are. These are deserving individuals who should be considered before anyone else.
This interview was co-produced with Brian Hedden of BK Southie, a great new blog aggregating and producing fresh content about Southern Brooklyn.