Friday, February 16, 2007

Weighing In

Politically speaking, there is a big difference between addressing an issue and "Weighing In" on a matter that means a great deal to people in a segment of the community. Politicians are adept at making speeches, giving interviews, addressing constituents at small gatherings or writing irate letters to subordinates or bureaucrats -even to commissioners of city agencies.

"Weighing In" on an issue is a totally different brand of toothpaste.

It is one of the more common catchphrases used by activists who can see through the fog of political rhetoric and window-dressing used to disguise the fact that a particular politician wants to appear to be fighting the good fight - but for one reason or another really doesn't give a shit whether the issue at hand is dealt with, or not. As long as it appears that he or she appears to be putting up a good fight - an argument can be supported that an effort was made.

But, the politician in question never really attempted to pick up the phone or have a meeting with the Commissioner who could make something happen and said "If you don't get this done, I'm going to fuck you politically!"

How does a resident of SoHo or Hudson Square, for example, know whether a Councilmember, Assembly member or Senator is really "Weighing In" on a matter of extreme importance?

How does anyone in the community know that their representative went to the mat for them? Like Lyndon Johnson - who was known to physically choke Congressmen in the halls of power - to get votes for his agenda. They feared him.

Politicians learn quickly about what they have to do and what they can get away with to get something done.

That's how they survive.

So, how do we know if our representative is REALLY fighting for us?

The answer to that is, follow the breadcrumbs.

Or, more succinctly, follow the phrase which teaches us that -- "It doesn't matter what you say, it only matters what you do."

Activists have their ears to the ground in a variety of ways. Whether someone is a member of a Community Board or one of its various committees, the public is always entitled to attend and listen. Newspapers, community publications and blogs tell those who are interested what they need to know, if they are listening.

In this regard, rumors have legs - and while some negative and false rumors are simply intended to damage reputations, there are rumors, which convey useful pieces of information. Some rumors are emotional reactions about the seeming intentions of an elected official -- but are nevertheless useful in evaluating a politician's real agenda.

Let's take one of the difficult issues in lower Manhattan: Billboards in SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square. Not one of the elected officials has come out in favor of Billboards. It's sort of like the Trump condo-hotel, Trump SoHo. No one is in favor of it. Only in the case of Trump, no one is doing anything to stop it. No one is Weighing In on Trump. Why?
366 West Broadway/505 Broome St
In the case of the Billboards, it's a very straightforward matter. Everyone is discovering that big BILLBOARDS can destroy an area, turn it into a mini-Times Square, destroy the appreciation of surrounding architecture, and generally piss people off.

Only, for the last six years it was only happening in SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square (as well as in Queens and Brooklyn along the elevated highways). It wasn't happening in Greenwich Village or in Gansevoort--where there are more votes. Landmarking comes from votes and pressure, ergo, protection.

It also wasn't on the radar screen of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Andrew Berman, who runs GVSHP, gets things done. 28 Watts Street at 6th AveHe focused on the billboards going up in the Meatpacking District a/k/a Gansevoort where a demonstration was held this past weekend - and the community "manned the barricades." Berman got the politicians focused and scared the shit out of them. Votes, baby! They started to "Weigh In" on the issue and suddenly the Department of Buildings was reviewing the "self-certified" permits.

This is an issue that the SoHo Journal has been writing about for five or six years; what SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square residents have been screaming about - has now been discovered. Suddenly, the fact that Van Wagner has been defacing our community for nearly a decade through felonious applications by architects who employ a process known as "self-certification" -- which is used to circumvent the Department of Buildings and the City Council - is big news.28 Watts Street at 6th Ave

Letters have been hastily generated by all of the politicians to "Weigh-In" on this issue. The existence of these signs, now, really mattered. There were more votes to contend with; people were demonstrating. The game had changed.

In fairness, only Borough President Scott Stringer had made an attempt with a recalcitrant Commissioner Lancaster of the Buildings Department to remove the offensive signs and structures. The D.O.B. response has been belated and insufficient.

But, what has been offered by D.O.B. is to -- are you ready for this -- have VanWagner Communications in charge of covering over illegal billboards. Talk about having the wolf in charge of the chicken coop! And, then a reward for eating them.

So, here is an open comment to Senator Tom Duane, Speaker Christine Quinn, Assembly member Deborah Glick, Congressman Jerry Nadler, Borough President Scott Stringer, Senator Connor, and Councilmember Alan Gerson:

Weigh-In on the Billboard issue.

Thompson & Broome StreetsSoHo, NoHo, Hudson Square, Greenwich Village and yes, Gansevoort too, wants the horrendous billboards removed from their respective community.

Investigate Van Wagner and sign installers and the architects they have used who have employed self-certification to install horrendous and unsafe structures in SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square--as well as in Greenwich Village and Gansevoort. Send the Fire Department to investigate locations where these unsafe, illegal and horrendous billboards are installed to thoroughly investigate ALL of the safety issues, and to assure residents that these buildings conform to all codes and have no violations.
A building owner should not be entitled to install any structures, even a legal billboard, if there are ANY violations on their building.

40-42 Thompson St at Watts StInsist that the City Council-mandated fines (passed by Peter Vallone) are applied in all instances, so that there is a disincentive to flout existing laws; create an enforcement unit with the power to remove billboards; and create a review board to determine what signage the community will allow constructed.

Calling 311 is a joke, writing letters is a waste of time. Only action counts now. You are expected to make a real effort NOW.

It's time for politicians who are not concerned about campaign contributions from Van Wagner or other media companies like ClearChannel - to act.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Take A Deep Breath

Well, maybe that’s not such a great idea.

Have you noticed that the intensity of diesel fumes Downtown seems worse?
Than usual, that is?
Well, the fact that residents in lower Manhattan are actually talking to each other about it is a significant matter in and of itself. With the nearly 20 years during which the Molinari Republicans managed to get the Verazzano Bridge toll reversed, the pollution level in and around SoHo has been at disastrously high levels. It is referred to as a “Black Zone” on environmental lists of safe air locations. Residents, babies in carriages, sidewalk vendors who remain in place and traffic agents – from Lafayette and Broome to Watts and Varick – from Canal and Bowery to West Street and Canal – and from Chambers along Hudson to Houston – the particulate from diesel trucks is phenomenal. Breathing deeply or jogging in these areas is like smoking a pack a day.

The key to the elevated level of carcinogens and particulate matter is a curious blend of bad traffic patterns and illegal signage, according to some activists. This most egregious situation comes about because traffic is stopped dead and idling much of the time – as cars, trucks and buses use Downtown, through the Holland Tunnel to exit Manhattan free of charge.
The free round trip through Staten Island and back out through lower Manhattan costs lives in terms of asthma, lung cancer and pulmonary disease. Try crossing the street with a baby carriage and it’s like being the poor animal in “Buck Hunter.”

Good old “Chuck” Schumer promised to get the Verazzano toll reversed, as one of his campaign promises to win his first Senate race, but, well, you know how it is. As soon as he was confirmed, his telephone responses (if any) to Downtown political supporters wanting to know when legislation to reverse the toll would be forthcoming were – CLICK.

Congressman Jerry Nadler has been a vociferous supporter of Downtown residents – especially in light of the rampant lies spread to residents by the government over the safety of our air after 9-11. He is a ranking member of the now Democratically controlled House and has commented that he is interested in introducing legislation to help reverse those tolls. Of course, this does not make Staten Island politicians happy. In truth, the traffic patterns and pollution are not at all similar when you compare lower Manhattan and the Expressway in Staten Island, which leads to the toll plaza by the Verazzano Bridge.
Anyone who has commuted by car or bus to or from Staten Island for many years – as I have – knows that there are a few major areas where back-ups occur. One is ON the Bridge coming from New York entering Staten Island, another is AFTER crossing the Bridge in Brooklyn as traffic merges with vehicles coming along the Shore Parkway (also in Brooklyn) – and the last is along the Expressway on Staten Island where there used to be tolls. Presumably, that is where the contention that pollution would be greater from slow moving vehicles on Staten Island.
First, there is no argument from the Staten Island press or its politicians that those in Brooklyn should be spared the immense traffic jams and pollution arising from the traffic jams and slow moving vehicles. Presumably, once the vehicles are out of Staten Island, no one cares that commuters, even from their own borough, are spewing about the pollution.
Second, the roadway in Staten Island where any traffic back-up might occur is an open, three to four lane expressway – which has crosscurrents of air (and from a very windy body of water) which blows away pollutants – and the surrounding residential dwellings are not directly on the roadbed. It is an open area with no obstructions or ventilation impediments. And, the closest residential dwelling to slow-moving vehicles on the Expressway is 50 feet away.
In Manhattan, especially in SoHo and Hudson Square, pedestrians on the sidewalks are less than 10 feet from rows of stalled, pollutant spewing vehicles – with no crosscurrents and carbon monoxide and particulates which is compressed in the valleys between buildings that are at least 60 feet high. All of this putrid air infects the residential buildings right ON the roadbed and pedestrians as well as babies in carriages are forced to breathe it in. It is inescapable. Cross-street traffic jams in SoHo are horrific and local police simply look the other way as baby carriages, seniors and people with canes weave in and out of bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks and buses.
No one crosses the Expressway in Staten Island; no one walks on the Expressway with a baby carriage.
It’s out of sight, out of mind and screw the residents of lower Manhattan.
In fact, the Staten Island press as well as its politicians have no clue what it is like to try to walk down a SoHo street and take a deep breath.
The trump card has always been, we vote Republican and we elect your Mayors (Giuliani and Bloomberg). Don’t fuck around with us. If you don’t like the air in SoHo, move.

The Verazzano toll issue and lower Manhattan pollution is not unrelated to the Billboard issue. It is no surprise that many of the billboards are located by high traffic routes. In fact, there is some indication that pollution levels are, in fact, higher where signs have been placed. Vehicles slow down or delay speeding up when a scantily clad model or a hot new car is advertised. Van Wagner is one of the most offensive media companies operating in lower Manhattan. This company has placed huge billboards in many high traffic routes, which often obliterate the architecture of some of SoHo’s most beautiful buildings. On Watts and West Broadway, the Times Square effect is most noticeable. On Hudson Street, a video screen and huge billboards tower over the line of vision and obliterate the skyline.
The City Council fought a good fight and under the tutelage of Peter Vallone a bill was passed that called for fines approaching $25,000 per day for signs that were illegal.
Unfortunately, we have a Mayor who owns a media company and a deputy Mayor who runs the show – but is all but in the pocket of big business. Doctoroff doesn’t give a shit about SoHo and cares little about anything but his next development strategy. Does anyone really think that these horrendous billboards would exist if the Bloomberg/Doctoroff team wanted them gone?

The SoHo Journal has been writing about this issue for several years and has been talking about the loss of art, the horrendous message in an arts community, and the illegality of these monstrosities on our buildings.
Only recently, since billboards have become a threat to the Meatpacking District, has it come to the attention of Greenwich Villagers and, in particular, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Andrew Berman has started to weigh in on the issue and has expressed his concern about cooperation from the Department of Buildings. While Berman has optimism about the D.O.B.’s intentions, we have more serious doubts.
Commissioner Lancaster has consistently avoided the issue and to date there is virtually no enforcement. Illegal signs remain unless someone with real power has a talk with the sign company. And, that has never happened in SoHo.

In fact, at Community Board #2, members were advised of a new initiative. The Department of Buildings had given the Board preliminary information (which has not been followed-up) that certain billboards were going to be covered over if they were found to be illegal.
We know of no signs in SoHo or anywhere else where that has happened.

Oh, and the company that has been hired to do this work – Van Wagner.

So, let’s hire the wolf to watch the barn – and then maybe, we’ll let him build the new barn – after he’s eaten all of us chickens.

What do you think? You think Van Wagner contributes to political campaigns?
Nah, its just a coincidence.

And, finally:

David Reck, President of Friends of Hudson Square has been in the news.
The recent imbroglio over the Department of Sanitation plans to build garages and fuel facilities has raised some interesting issues and David has been very vocal.
This week there was a presentation at the Zoning committee of Community Board #2. This “Scoping” session was held at Zoning with members of the Environment Committee and Chair Maria Derr in attendance as well.
A presentation was made by D.O.S. and comments were offered by members such as Ann Arlen – a longtime Village resident and current Public Member of the Board (as well as previous regular Board member). While she has been a fervent environmentalist in the past, her speech at this meeting was well received by most of the members of the Board and the audience. It was neither excessively alarmist nor off the point.
Rick Panson, a partisan supporter of the nightlife faction on the Board and his committee were nevertheless helpful and focused on this issue and presented well – culling some of their material from Reck and other background through their own research.

Of course, the most salient, if not the most bizarre aspect of all of this is one simple set of facts:
On a recent walk near the existing site at Canal and Spring where there is current storage of 15,000 gallons of fuel, the doors to the building were wide open. No security, no observation, no concerns.
D.O.S. wants to expand the storage of these highly flammable fuels within a couple of hundred feet of a large gas station – in a building which would now accommodate 29,000 gallons of fuel – directly over the Holland Tunnel – and a short distance from the only escape route and ventilation building for the Holland Tunnel.
Can you say “Homeland Security?”

What’s wrong with this picture?