Is anyone listening?
That’s the sentiment of many in City Council District 2 four years after incumbent Councilmember Carlina Rivera was first elected to represent the district which stretches along the East River from Grand Street to Kip’s Bay.
Rivera has plunged ahead with her support for controversial mega-projects from one end of the district to the other while small businesses continue to struggle with soaring commercial rents and the aftermath of the pandemic.
The battle over the future of East River Park has been especially heated.
The original coastal resiliency plan developed over four years by the community would have spared much of the park and built protective berms along the FDR Drive. Rivera threw her support behind an alternate plan by Mayor de Blasio to demolish the 58-acre park and build a new park on top of the old, sparking years of conflict that have riven the community.
As an incumbent, Rivera has the money, the connections and the high-profile endorsements that normally allow sitting members of the council to coast to re-election. Her critics are hoping for an upset and have rallied around Erin Hussein, the longtime tenant association president of Stewart House, a block-long, 368-unit co-op on East 10th Street. Hussein doesn’t have a political machine backing her, and she says that’s a good thing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Indypendent: Your opponent won the 2017 Democratic primary with more than 60% of the vote in a six-way contest that you competed in. What has changed since then that makes you think you can win this time when she has all the incumbent’s advantages in terms of money, endorsements and name recognition?
Erin Hussein: She did win convincingly in 2017. She had experience being on the staff of former Councilmember Rosie Mendez and she really cleaned up in the endorsement race last time. So, many people were comfortable voting for her.
This time it’s different. She now has a record of abandoning pledges she made very publicly on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and on the Tech Hub on East 14th Street. There are three or four questions I get over and over again wherever I am canvassing. One of them has to do with closed storefronts. In this district we rely on small businesses. They are the lifeblood of our community and a lot of them are run by people who are local. We now have entire streets that are boarded up. Rivera initially got on the Small Business Committee and then quietly dropped off the committee. We need to address the double whammy of Covid and the skyrocketing speculative rents that were already a crisis before the pandemic.
What will you do differently?
I mean to be on the Small Business Committee that gives our small businesses a seat at the table. When she just dropped off the committee, that was a disappointment for small businesses and people in the district who care about small business, because she had made this pledge. The second pledge, which I think looms even larger in people’s minds, is the issue of the Tech Hub.
We all made the same pledge in 2017 that we were not going to support the giving of city-owned land to a private developer unless these large corridors along Third and Fifth Avenue got a downzoning or a rezoning that would incentivize residential building instead of commercial or hotels. Then, several months into her term Rivera gave the greenlight to giving city-owned land to a private developer and the protections she promised didn’t amount to much. What she did deliver is a sweetheart deal on a prime piece of city owned land for a developer. And it was the CEO of one of the anchor tenants in that new building who made a large campaign contribution to her in 2017.
Your thoughts on the City’s plan to demolish East River Park and build a new park in the coming years on top of 8-10 feet of imported dirt and fill?
There’s a report out there by a private engineering company that’s been heavily redacted. It was paid for by taxpayers. We can see in the report that there were several alternatives that were considered but we can’t really see the details. We can’t see why they weren’t selected. Clearly a choice was made to go with the most extreme plan that was identified in that report, and it’s a plan that’s incredibly harmful to the community and to the people that live in the NYCHA developments along the park. They’re going to take away the green space that we have, and then they’re going to spend five years dumping soil particulates which we know are very, very harmful.
So that report needs to be produced in an unredacted form. The community needs to have an opportunity to look at it and we need to press a pause on this whole process.
And what do you make of Councilmember Rivera’s role in all this?
She claimed at one point that there wasn’t a report, that the City had told her that the report didn’t exist. Then, East River Park Action did a FOIL procedure to get the report. And when they finally got the report, Rivera claimed credit for that.
So what happened here? Did the City lie to her? Or, did she lie to the community? Either one is bad. If she’s unable to have the City take her seriously enough to give her an honest answer and produce the report for her, that’s bad. If she knew there was a damning report and she was dishonest, thinking that the report would never see the light of day, that’s also a problem.
If you were to win this election, do you see being able to use your position to stop this project from going forward? Or, would you be more in a role of helping to manage a less destructive outcome?
I’m prepared for either eventuality. The reality is that I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know on January 1, 2022 what the state of play is going to be. It’s possible the lawsuit between one of the bidders for the construction contract and the city is still ongoing. It’s possible that a contract has been signed, but they’re in some pre-mobilization phase where I could have a lot of input about the parameters of what they are doing.
I have experience doing that. I’m the president of the board of my building which is one of the largest residential co-op buildings in our district. It’s a full block long. I deal with this all the time. For instance, we have a massive garage repair going on right now. I have the expertise of figuring out what exactly has been contracted for and then negotiating further with the contractor. There’s always additional negotiations with the contractor. It’s never you come back in five years and hand me the key.
If we are in a situation where the contract has been signed, and it’s moving forward, then I’m very well positioned to, you know, to be at that table with, with the contractor and subcontractors and, and the City. But I hope that’s not where we are. I hope that a contract has not been signed yet.
What do you make of the fact that since the controversy over the par erupted many of the people turning out at public protests are white residents of District 2 and people of color have largely stayed away even though many of them are on the frontlines of this?
That hasn’t been my experience. I joined the April 18 march and the people I was marching with were overwhelmingly people of color and many of them were from the NYCHA housing developments. I’ve been in the developments. I walk up and down Avenue D and Avenue C several times a week. And I can tell you people are asking about the park. Whether it’s at the Riis, Wald or Baruch Houses, people are concerned about the park. And if people aren’t marching, it’s not an expression of a lack of concern.
As a councilmember, what would you do to address racial divides that have existed for many decades in the community? For example, you had labor unions building co-ops in the 1950s that were originally for whites only and NYCHA houses whose residents have mostly been Black and Puerto Rican. Those divides have taken center stage again in the dispute over the park.
Yes, those rifts have been reported. To me, there’s been partially an attempt to divide us against each other. In District Two, I think we all want the same things: a roof over our head, a clean, safe place to live with dignity. We all want clean air. We all want green space. We all want clean streets. Those of us who have children, and probably even those of us who don’t have children, want a good education available for our kids. I’m walking and talking to people in East River Park, Avenue C & D, Astor Place, Murray Hill, Kip’s Bay and these are the things I keep hearing.
Mega-development projects, gentrification and boarded-up small businesses are the top issues in a race where the incumbent has been criticized for being out of touch with her district.
Moving on to a couple other topics. What are your thoughts on how the NYPD can best be reformed? Do you support the idea of defunding the NYPD to one extent or another?
I think that there is waste in the entire city budget. And I don’t think that the city budget is audited regularly. There are a lot of functions that the police have that should not be in the NYPD. I think we can learn from what other cities are doing that send unarmed community safety officers to assist people who are having mental health crises. We don’t need armed police handling routine traffic violations.
We also need to look at who’s policing the police. I think the Civilian Complaint Review Board is not working that well. I think it might not be working at all. The NYPD should be under civilian control. And the way the CCRB is set up right now, it just doesn’t work that way, because the Police Commissioner has the ability to change recommended punishments, or not enforce punishments at all.
Mayor de Blasio recently suggested that with so many bikes on the streets as cycling becomes more popular that license plates should be mandated for bicycles. What are your thoughts on this given that cycling is popular in your district but also can be dangerous for pedestrians?
I ride a bicycle around the city and when I do I’m mindful of pedestrians. In my building, last year, we had a resident who was hit by a bicyclist right outside our building, going the wrong direction, and she was in the hospital for two months. Bicycle license plates could give people a sense of accountability, that they can’t just hit someone and dip off. However, I’m always very concerned about creating additional city bureaucracy, I’m concerned about creating additional fines and fees and whether we’re just adding an additional crime of poverty like your vehicle registration being expired.
We need to speak with real experts on both sides of the issue. We should look at cities and cultures in Europe and in Asia that have more experience with this. And then we would need community public hearings before we do anything. I don’t think de Blasio should be just announcing things on his way out.
If you were to win this race, you would not only defeat Carlina Rivera but the Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), the local political club that has dominated neighborhood politics since 1997.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to have any group capture a seat of power, whether it’s CoDA or another political club. But I want to challenge your assumption that I would be defeating CoDA. l want to give everyone a voice. If I was fortunate enough to win the race, I would immediately sit down with CoDA. They would be my constituents just as much as anyone else even though they tried really hard to keep me off the ballot.
It would be my responsibility as a councilperson to meet as many people as I can, to have a fully functioning council office where there’s full transparency and you have a user friendly, state-of-the art website and a responsive staff. You serve everyone, because that’s just what you should do.
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