District 22

Costa Constantinides

Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside

2015 State of the District Address

Council Member Costa Constantinides
State of the District Address
Delivered at PS 151 on January 29, 2015

Good evening everyone. I want to thank everyone at PS 151 for allowing us to use this space to showcase such a wonderful school. I also want to thank Doctor Maisonet for the introduction – thank you for all the hard work you’re doing for our children. Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and that’s why I’ve pledged to have every state of the district presentation in a public school. I want to make sure that everyone has a chance to see firsthand the strength of these pillars of our neighborhood.

Thank you all for being here tonight. Just about 1 year ago today, (1 year and 3 days ago but who’s counting)  I stood before the crowd at my inauguration and we began the discussion of what we could accomplish together.  We took stock of where we had been and where we could go as 1 community united and working together.  After one year, I can tell you my passion for this job and this community has only grown.  I still remain humbled by the job you have entrusted me with and every day I remember what it means to represent this amazing district.  Tonight, we come together once again to renew our conversation and build upon the work done so far and look to the new year with renewed vigor for what we can accomplish moving forward.  

After decades of indifference as a shapeless “outerborough”, Queens is finally getting recognition for the human and cultural wealth that those of us who make this wonderful community our home have long cherished.  That’s what attracts so many from around the world to come and put down roots here. You’d be hard pressed to find a transplant who doesn’t treasure local staples like Stamatis, Sorriso, Sal the Sandwich King, or countless others as much as any lifelong resident. There are 160+ languages spoken here in Queens, and I think every one of them is spoken here in our district. This diversity and how we embrace new ideas in our communities, while maintaining our heritage and neighborhood feel, is our greatest strength.

Our district is constantly growing and changing, and it continues to thrive. I’m proud to report that we have made many strides this past year towards building a strong foundation on which the western Queens of the future will rest.

We invested in our community’s health, open space, and education. As part of their expansion project, the Council helped secure 2.1 million dollars for a new state-of-the-art PET scan machine at Mount Sinai Hospital. No one should have to go over a bridge to get top quality healthcare. With this investment, the best community in the city will have an even better medical facility to match it.

We also made 2 investments in our open space, spending over 2 million dollars to improve Astoria Heights Playground and Bulova-Moser Park. When you improve a park, you improve a community, and these renovated parks will add to our neighborhood’s character and provide all with greater places to play. We were also able to provide over 1 million dollars for technology upgrades at our local schools, including SmartBoards, laptops, tablets, and the 21st century infrastructure needed to support them. I am committed to closing the digital divide in our community, and these upgrades will put us on a path to accomplish that. We allocated over 100,000 dollars to support our local senior centers to ensure that our seniors are receiving the best programming and care possible.

Additionally, we worked to Keep Astoria Clean. We expanded our relationship with The Doe Fund and many of you have seen the “Men In Blue” cleaning our sidewalks. We also invested in graffiti removal services to keep buildings clean. Keep Astoria Clean is a work in progress but it is on the right track because everyone worked together – many groups across the neighborhood organized playground and sidewalk cleanups. We worked hand in hand to beautify our community and I look forward to continuing that.  

We also brought Participatory Budgeting to this district for the first time, allowing residents to offer their suggestions for how best to spend 1 million dollars in capital funds. We received close to 200 ideas, including street repavings, new parks and playgrounds, and school upgrades.

Right now members of the community are working with the agencies to craft the final proposals, so stay tuned – you’ll have the opportunity to vote on your favorite projects in April!

I’m proud to report that the Council passed my first law last year, creating a bold new standard for reducing the city’s total carbon emissions. My bill, now Local Law 66 of 2014, requires an 80 percent carbon emissions reduction by the year 2050, the minimum standard that climate scientists at NASA and the Defense Department agree is the target we as a civilization must meet. New York is now the largest city in the world to commit by law to meeting the 80 by 50 target. We’re the world’s city, and we should continue to lead when it comes to sustainability.

Finally, our neighborhood proved how 21st century development should be considered. For too long, major developments were done without consideration of the larger community.  

We helped change that paradigm with our agreement on Astoria Cove, a future development along Astoria’s East River waterfront on Hallets Peninsula. The developers were looking for a zoning change so they could build 1,700 unit development on land that has been used for manufacturing for decades. I worked with the developers to make sure Astoria got a fair share in this landmark deal.

For the first time in city history, a developer will be required by law to provide permanently affordable housing that is reserved for low and middle-income households.

27 percent of the project will be designated as affordable.

Unlike previous development projects, where all the affordable housing provided was bought with public subsidy, the bulk of Astoria Cove’s affordable housing was written into the text of the city’s zoning law. We were also able to ensure that affordability was something that is actually within reach, and not just the product of a formula that doesn’t take into account the needs of the community.

But that wasn’t all. As part of this project, Astoria will be connected by ferry to other parts of the city for the first time in nearly a century. The local library and senior center will receive major renovations. Hallets Peninsula will also receive the first grocery store and real retail options in decades. Several of the businesses will be worker cooperatives. Employees at these businesses will also be small business owners able to build equity and wealth in the company and the community.

Astoria Cove will bring shared benefit and prosperity to a part of the neighborhood that has long needed it.

 

Not often can you say that a project will figuratively and literally lift all boats, but this development is designed to do just that.

 

As proud as I am of what we have accomplished, I am still humbled by the scope of what remains to be done. Yet I’m confident that no challenge is ever truly insurmountable. After all, generations of New Yorkers have faced the hazards and pitfalls that come with the arduous task of building an environment that welcomed all and gave everyone a fair shot at a better life.

Now it is our turn to do the same. I ask you tonight to join me in envisioning the New York City of 2050.

What great changes will await us in the next 35 years? What challenges will confront New Yorkers in that time? There is no reason to believe that the qualities that served New Yorkers for over four centuries: determination, grit, ingenuity, and the ability to adapt to anything fate may throw our way, will abandon us so long as we adhere to our core principles. These principles are sustainability, engagement, and inclusiveness.

 

First and foremost, the New York City of 2050 must be sustainable.

 

If we are unable to achieve that goal, whatever progress we make elsewhere will be for naught. Sustainability in this context means that no one should have to worry about whether living in our community is a viable long-term proposition or not. Parents should be able to put their children to bed without worrying that their homes will be taken from them by rising rents or by rising seas. With 80 by 50 enshrined into law, we created a roadmap that will take us to a more sustainable NYC. Knowing where we must go, however, is only the first step. Now we must determine how to get there.

As Hurricane Sandy made so painfully clear, we have to face the coming climate crisis head on. Half of our district is located in a hurricane evacuation zone. If we don’t act, future storms and floods will render it nearly impossible to live comfortably in large sections of Astoria, Long Island City, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights.  

On a given day, New York City produces 149,903 metric tons of carbon.. That’s a lot of carbon – enough to bury the Empire State Building. That’s why I’m proud to report that my first bill introduced this year, Intro. 609, will make a significant impact on our city’s biggest source of carbon emissions – buildings.

Intro. 609 will encourage the use of geothermal systems in buildings citywide. These systems use heat from under the earth’s crust to provide heat to our buildings. They use much less energy on average than most heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems. With state and federal tax credits available, some homeowners may be able to see a return on their investment in as little as three years. And that’s not even the best part! If a property owner is able to combine one of these systems with a renewable source of electricity, such as solar or wind power, they may be able to eliminate their carbon footprint entirely.

These systems may not work for everyone. Some homeowners or property managers may not have the right topography for a geothermal system. That’s why we must consider other alternatives that can help us build a more sustainable city. Biodiesel, for example, is a type of fuel, sourced from used cooking grease, and vegetable oils. Several years ago, Mayor Bloomberg signed into law a bill that mandated that fuel oil sold in New York City contain 2 percent biodiesel. This small change allowed us to reduce our total carbon emissions by 337 million pounds per year, or the equivalent of 30,000 cars being permanently taken off the road. But we can push farther, and that’s why I will be introducing a bill to raise the blend level in NYC from 2 percent to 5 percent in 2015 and create a framework to up that blend level every 5 years until we reach B20. I will also call on the state to enact the same standard. With the initial 3 percent increase, we’ll save up to 75 million gallons of petroleum every year.

But we cannot stop there. As part of 80 by 50 we committed to green our city-owned buildings. I have spoken with the School Construction Authority about greening our schools. These buildings represent opportunities to create models for achieving carbon neutral spaces for the private sector to emulate.

I will be investing capital dollars to study the use of solar panels on our local schools. Solar panels can teach our children about the need to be green while also making their school green as well. We must push the envelope and seek out every avenue to ensure that our 80 by 50 goal becomes the green future for our children.

To be truly sustainable the New York City of 2050 must also be affordable. No one benefits when entire swaths of a city are segregated by income, and the working class is relegated to the fringes. We must do better in terms of providing real affordability to the millions of New Yorkers who need it the most.

That’s why I’m proud of the agreement we made on Astoria Cove, the first development in our city to use mandatory inclusionary zoning.

Under this program, any developer who asks the city for a major zoning change must provide a certain percentage of affordable housing without any additional subsidy. With Astoria Cove, we achieved a 27 percent commitment to build affordable housing as part of the project.

It’s time that the entire city adopt the framework that we used at Astoria Cove.

Make no mistake – we don’t seek to punish or hinder the developers that provide the housing we sorely need, but we will ask that, when they are given the ability to build new, potentially disruptive higher-income housing, they must also include space that reflects the needs of our working neighborhood. It’s not about cheap apartments but building to allow our middle and working classes to stay in our neighborhood. It’s better for everyone when working and middle class New Yorkers can commit themselves to their child’s education, dance recitals, or soccer practice, rather than wondering whether they can continue to afford to stay in the neighborhood they love.

Ensuring that affordable housing is within the reach of everyone also requires action by the federal government. As we found out during the Astoria Cove debate, affordability is a very subjective term. The median household income for the Hallets Point area is 46,000 dollars. Under federal law, however, we had to calculate what was “affordable” using the NY metro-area median income of 62,500 dollars.

Consequently, we weren’t even able to have a discussion about how to achieve real affordability for our community because the formula to figure out what’s affordable in the first place is skewed.

That’s why I’m calling on the federal government to change the way they calculate Area Median Income so it is more reflective of individual communities. It’s unacceptable that the way we determine housing needs of Astoria depends on the needs of Scarsdale or the Hamptons.

By skewing the numbers, we only worsen the affordability crisis that faces us, and the greater the chances are that those most in need will be figuratively and literally left out in the cold.

But this discussion must also include our homeowners and small business owners. I haven’t forgotten you. Your home or your business is your biggest investment; you worked hard to save and purchase your piece of the American Dream.  Now, with rising water bills and property taxes going through the roof, preserving that dream has become more and more complicated. I am proud to co-sponsor a bill that would provide some welcome tax relief by reinstating the 500 dollar tax rebate from years past.

We also need to end the back door water tax that hits our homeowners the hardest. Single-family homes are paying over 1,000 dollars per year for their water, and multi-unit buildings are paying almost 700 dollars per unit per year. Too much of this money goes directly into the city’s general fund, to be used for whatever the city desires. This is wrong, and amounts to a back door tax increase. It is time to end the rental payment that funnels more than 100 million dollars from the water and sewer ratepayers into our city’s general fund.

I pledge to work with the DeBlasio administration to end this practice that began under Mayor Bloomberg that caused our water rates to nearly double. I will also continue to work with the Department of Consumer Affairs on its Small Business Relief Package. The package includes two-dozen reforms that reduce the number and cost of violations for small businesses, increase transparency and fairness, and expand business outreach and education. Owners will have more money to invest their own small businesses.

We can do better to improve the lives of our home and small business owners owners and I stand here before you to say that we hear you and plan to act.

 

Secondly, NYC 2050 must be engaged.

 

This sounds simple – but it is a two-fold issue, one that we’ve found ourselves struggling with more and more over the past several decades. A successful and thriving community is marked by the engagement of its citizens with the community as a whole. That engagement must be reciprocated by the community if it is to sustain itself. A community that lacks this mutual engagement will inevitably fall victim to disarray, and thus it is critical that we address the areas where community engagement has faltered.

One of the happiest moments of my life was the night that I was elected to be your City Council Member, and the fervent support of so many of you here in this room tonight meant the world to me. I’m also humbled by the fact that a little over 1 in 5 residents of the district went to the polls to vote for or against me. Last year’s elections were marginally better by comparison, but in an election cycle that would determine who would control Congress and our State Senate, New York state as a whole managed a meager 28.8 percent turnout rate, one of the lowest in the country. Not only is this embarrassing, it is also indicative of a larger crisis of confidence, which could have disastrous consequences for our system of government.

While I can’t promise you that I can do anything about Congress, there are several initiatives that I believe would greatly help in bringing the disaffected and disillusioned back into the political process. We must catch up with the rest of America and implement an early voting system. Our current scheme, voting only on Tuesday, dates back to the early 19th century, when farmers would bring their stockpiled wares to market after the harvest season was over. Tuesday voting predates electronics, penicillin, and modern work schedules. It’s time that we update our voting procedures to reflect that.

I’m proud to co-sponsor a bill that would create such a system for all municipal elections, and I plan to work with my fellow council members to see that it becomes reality.

We can’t stop there, as solving the problem on the local level is only the first step. In its last session, the state Assembly twice passed a bill that would have implemented early voting for all elections in the state of New York. Each time, the legislation was stymied by the Republican State Senate. This has to stop this year.

The rest of the Senate needs to look to the leadership of outstanding senators like our own Michael Gianaris and pass the early voting bill. With this simple, commonsense legislation, we can open the franchise back up to those whose personal schedules don’t happen to coincide with farmers from 1830.

We must also rethink how we choose our elected officials. In 2013, the race to see who would become the Democratic candidate for Public Advocate went to a runoff, as no one received more than 40 percent of the vote. Around 6 percent of eligible voters came out to vote in an election that cost the city 13 million dollars. Luckily, there is a solution to this problem called instant runoff voting that will save the city money and allow citizens to better express their political preferences. Instead of just voting for one person, you can pick your favorite candidates and rank them. If one candidate doesn’t get a majority of the vote, your second and third choices get tallied up until one candidate can claim a win. I support the bill currently before the Council that would implement this system for primary elections, and I hope that my colleagues join me in calling for this innovative reform that will help rekindle the spirit of participatory democracy in our city.

Conversely, we must also ensure that our public institutions are doing a better job of engaging the citizenry that they have a solemn duty to serve. After being named the Chair of the Council Subcommittee on Libraries, I’ve learned that our libraries are increasingly cultural and educational centers that cater to the needs of all New Yorkers. What many don’t know is our libraries exist in a limbo between public and private status. They were originally built by philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John Jacob Astor, and even today they continue to operate as private non-profits – all while receiving over 85 percent of their funding from taxpayers. As the Center for an Urban Future pointed out in a recent report, this quasi-public existence of the libraries results in less oversight, more potential for abuse, and no coordinated plan to fix up our libraries, many of which are literally falling apart. That’s why I’m calling on the city to act on these recommendations and create a unified oversight and funding mechanism for our libraries. It’s simply unacceptable that our libraries have to choose between paying their staff and fixing the leaks in the roof. Our state legislature and our stalwart Borough President Melinda Katz have done exemplary work to bring our libraries into the light – but there’s more that we can do.

 

Finally, the NYC of 2050 must be inclusive – not just in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity, but inclusive of everyone’s needs, from how we work, to how we travel, to how we interact with one another.

 

Like the city that surrounds it, Astoria was born on the waterfront. On this wonderful map of Astoria from 1873, you can see how all roads lead down to the ferry dock. In fact, the seal of independent Long Island City even depicted Poseidon, the god of the seas! As the generations passed, we moved further and further inland, and the old ferry docks were left to rot and decay. All that remains now of that heritage is an outcropping of jagged piers and a vague recollection of a distant past where Astorians met the flood tide below them. Public housing campuses, some of the largest on the planet, were placed nearby because the land was seen as undesirable, written off as a matter of public policy. Banks would literally draw a line around certain neighborhoods on a map and deny those communities access to accounts and loans. Here, you can see how the waterfront was literally drawn out.

But why did we turn our backs to the waterfront that birthed and nurtured our neighborhood? Yes, some who lived near the subway,  saw their commute times improve, but for those who remained near the shore, our once dominant mode of transportation was gone. It’s time we fixed that. It’s time that we return to our roots and once again connect with one of our greatest local resources – the East River.

Once, our waterfront was not just a place to watch the sunset over the Manhattan skyline – it was also a part of everyone’s lives in a real, tangible manner, for recreation as well as for business or transport. When we moved away from the shore, we forgot how intertwined we are with the water that surrounds us. Today, children who desperately need places to play rest their chins along the railing and look out at a world that was once theirs. We have before us a unique opportunity to provide these children with a new environment for play that also serves as an innovative educational tool. The future of our community is how we resolve to renew and reinvigorate these connections to our past.

Over the last several years, New York City, in conjunction with local environmental groups, has laid out a plan to build what are called Eco-Docks. These docks are built on large pylons that allow the dock to float up and down with the tide, allowing access to watercraft. They also give students an opportunity to get close enough to the water that they can learn about biology, environmental science, and chemistry. It’s one thing to read about marine life or ecosystems in a book, but it’s a whole other thing to have a chance to experience it first hand.

That’s why I’m announcing today that I will work to replace the decrepit pier that is rotting into the river, with a brand new Eco-Dock as part of our waterfront redevelopment. Preliminary studies have already been done, so we know that it’s feasible. An Eco Dock has already been built in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, so we already have an object example of how we can make this project work. We already know what a positive impact it can have, as students from John Dewey High School in Brooklyn have already participated in educational programming at the Bay Ridge Eco-Dock, including learning how oysters can help us care for the marine environment. (Pretty cool, right?) This simple project will offer Astorians from all walks of life a chance to reacquaint themselves with a world that for so long was neglected and disdained.

 

Everything old is new again in time, and the rediscovery of our waterfront heritage shouldn’t stop with recreation – it should also include transportation. We all know all too well how crowded the N, Q, and R trains can be every morning. I usually take the train to get down to City Hall, and even though I’m only the second stop on the line, the seats are gone by the time I board – and that’s to say nothing of the people farther down the line who can’t even get on the first train that comes into the station! It’s time we look for innovative new solutions for solving our neighborhood’s transit woes. In this case, however, a solution from our past lights the way forward for the future.

As part of our agreement on Astoria Cove, the city is committed to allocating 5 Million dollars to build a brand new ferry dock on the north side of the Hallets Point peninsula. Once completed, the dock will connect the peninsula, through the East River Ferry service, to parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. It will also help increase public transit service in an area that is up to a half-hour walk to the nearest subway. We know that it can be made to work, since the city’s Economic Development Corporation found in a recent study that a ferry stop in Astoria is a viable transit option. To make it not just viable, but attractive, we need to ensure that there are additional stops available to commuters. I applaud Governor Cuomo’s proposal to link the ferry system to LaGuardia Airport, but we need to go farther if we’re going to make this system work. That’s why I’m calling on the city to build, aside from the LaGuardia terminal, two additional stops that would connect Astoria to the new Cornell Technion Center on Roosevelt Island and northern Long Island City. If we’re going to make our investment in this system worthwhile, we need to make sure that the ferry takes people where they want to go.

Our transit system is the lifeblood of our city, but more and more we’re seeing how the framework on which our system was built is in many ways inadequate to the needs of the 21st century. While the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has been profoundly transformed over the last 25 years, the transit needs of the surrounding communities were never fully addressed. This has to change. From the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the startups in Williamsburg to the new developments in Long Island City, there’s already a critical mass of need along this tech corridor – and this need is only going to grow with Astoria Cove and the Cornell Technion Center. That’s why I’m calling on the city and the state to act on the recommendations of the Department of City Planning and create a new transit line that connects 21st Street with Brooklyn – and beyond. Whether this project takes the shape of light rail, a bus rapid transit line, or something else is secondary. The growth of the East River Corridor has been one of the most transformative developments in our city’s recent history, and if that is to continue, we must ensure that our concept of mass transit in western Queens transforms with it.

Connecting western Queens is not just about lines on a map, however – it’s about including the people who already live there in the discussion of how we build our neighborhood’s future. It is time the residents of our New York City Housing Authority get the seat at the table they so rightly deserve. For more than half a century their land and their needs were grossly neglected. The peninsula that lies to our west is 1,500 feet away from Manhattan. You can literally see Gracie Mansion from this isolated pocket of poverty. I’m proud that our agreement at Astoria Cove will bring so many needed amenities to this area but we need to do more. We need to bring our public housing into the 21st Century. I’m proud to have funded a pilot program that will provide iPads to the Queens Library, specifically to ensure that our NYCHA residents, 40% of whom do not have access to the internet, can finally have the tools at their disposal to apply for school, write a resume, or apply for a new job. For years, these residents were pushed aside to the waterfront, as the inland area began to grow exponentially. It’s time to be inclusive. All communities will rise and fall together and it’s time we included our NYCHA communities in our civic process.

Inclusion means ensuring that everyone can find a space for themselves in our community. That includes a home, a job, and a seat at a top school – but it also includes a place in the thoroughfares that connect us to one another. Let’s put it this way: If I asked you right now to answer the question “What is a street?”, you would be completely taken aback. Not because it’s a particularly hard question, of course – but because the answer seems so obvious to all that you’d look at me as if I had two heads! That’s because we’ve all grown up with the basic notion that streets are for cars, and that any other possible use is secondary. Just like peanut butter and jelly, or Fred and Ginger, or Yankees and championships, streets and cars were bonded together in the modern age.

Is that what we truly want of our streets, though? While we gained some mobility and freedom by letting cars have free reign, did we lose anything along the way?

Let’s take 21 Street as an example.

The 21 Street corridor has been notorious for pedestrian fatalities. Cars frequently travel above the speed limit and there have been 8 deaths due to car accidents on the street over the last decade. The street is home to major senior and youth developments such as I.S. 126, Variety Boys and Girls Club, Long Island City High School, Archbishop Iakovos Senior Housing, and Queensview North and East.  

The City’s Vision Zero program has helped and I’m proud that in the coming weeks, we’ll see some major traffic safety improvements on this thoroughfare. Stay tuned for the details.

There is still more work to be done. One New Yorker dies in a traffic-related accident every 35 hours, and we have already had 8 deaths in the city so far in 2015.

While I don’t agree with those who want to do away with car travel, I do believe that the interest in bike sharing and VisionZero demonstrate that many people are interested in envisioning inclusive streets.   I’m proud to have supported Vision Zero over the past year, and now I believe that it’s time we move forward and do more to bring inclusive streets to Astoria. We must bring CitiBike to the neighborhood as soon as possible. I commend DOT for committing to do so, but I think that it can be done prior to 2017. The demand is growing every day and will only continue as an influx of new residents, visitors from other neighborhoods, and tourists come into the district.

I also believe that it’s time that we increase the number of slow zones, where the speed limit drops to 20 miles per hour, in our neighborhood. Far too often I get complaints from people who live on the feeder streets to the Grand Central Parkway who must deal with irresponsible drivers whipping by at all hours of the day and night. Not only is this noisy and disruptive, it is also incredibly dangerous. When traffic is slowed to 20 miles per hour, pedestrians hit by cars have a 95 percent survival rate. I was excited to see DOT’s proposal to create a slow zone in our district that is tailored to the needs of small business owners as well as homeowners and tenants, and I will work with them to bring this to fruition by the end of the year.

My son, now five, will be 41 in 2050, a year older than I am now,  and there are times when I wonder about the issues and struggles that may face him in the future. I can never be sure that the things I teach him may be relevant to the person he becomes. Yet I also know that the values that brought us this far are values that will see him through no matter what obstacles may face him in times to come. Those values – inclusiveness, engagement with the community, and the drive to build a sustainable future – are an essential component of who we are, and they are what have distinguished us for centuries. They are what afforded us the freedom to look beyond the horizon. That’s why I believe that the future of our district is secure, and that’s why I’m confident that we will meet the challenges of 2050. Thank you.