Council Member Costa Constantinides
State of the District Address
Delivered at PS 122 on January 25, 2016
Thank you, everyone. Good evening. Let me begin by thanking Principal Sabel and everyone here at PS 122 for allowing us the privilege of sharing this space. As an alum of this school’s Gifted and Talented program, I can tell you firsthand that the culture this school creates is special. It was at PS 122 that my path became clear. I began to learn the qualities and traits of leadership that helped me become the person standing before you today. That’s why, when the previous mayor tried to drastically revamp this school in a way that would have effectively killed what made it one of the best schools in the state, I was proud to stand alongside you in defense of PS 122. We need other schools to emulate the unique learning environment that this school has created.
It’s hard to believe it sometimes, but I am now more than halfway through my first term as your Council Member. In that time we’ve faced many challenges together, and celebrated successes along the way. We’ve tackled big ideas, like how best to clean the planet’s atmosphere, and smaller ideas, like how best to keep our sidewalks clean. We’ve seen some cherished old friends leave the neighborhood, but we’ve also welcomed new faces to our western Queens family. It’s a bustling, vibrant, diverse pocket of the metropolis that still finds a way to be a small town at heart, and that’s why I remain incredibly grateful of the trust you’ve placed in me to represent and nurture such a special community.
In the Council, it has been a very busy year. Last June, I was honored to have been named the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection. You don’t have to know me very long to know that the fight for a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable world has been dear to my heart for a long time. From my tenure as a staffer to former Chair Jim Gennaro, to my time as a member of the committee, I have spent almost 8 years working on environmental issues for the Council. As Chair, it is my duty to work with the administration to craft environmental policy that enhances our quality of life while safeguarding our natural treasures for millions of New Yorkers to come.
Tomorrow marks 7 months since I was given this opportunity, and in that time, the committee has already achieved several important victories for our environment. First, I am immensely proud that earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio signed my bill to encourage the use of geothermal energy. This law directs the city to create a screening tool that anyone can use to determine whether a geothermal system can be used to heat and cool their property. The tool will take into account the efficiency needs of your building and give you an estimate of whether a geothermal system can help you green your building in a cost-effective manner. Most significantly, what constitutes “cost-effectiveness” under this new law includes not just energy and construction costs, but social costs as well for the first time in city history.
Under this law, the city will also be required to run this screening tool on any city building that has a heating and cooling system due for an upgrade, and if the math shows that geothermal is cost effective, the city is required to install a geothermal system. We know geothermal works, too. Right now geothermal systems are operational or under construction in the Queens Botanical Garden, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the new visitor center at Washington Square Park.
Secondly, we helped strengthen and clarify rules for businesses that use air conditioning in the summer. This is crucial for maintaining our neighborhood’s air quality, as several of our local power plants are “peaker” plants, meeting demand on the electrical grid when it arises. In other words, the more energy we use, the more likely it is that these plants will need to be fired up. When they are, they’re free to use dirty fuel oils that are linked to a number of negative health outcomes including asthma, COPD, and developmental delays in children. I’m proud we took this important step to ensure cleaner air for western Queens residents.
Last June we also passed a balanced and fiscally responsible budget. This budget achieved several major victories. First and foremost, we hired 1,300 police officers to keep our communities safe. We were also able to get 400 cops out from behind desks and back out on the beat, for a total of 1,700 additional officers. The Council pushed hard for these additional officers because there is nothing more important than our families’ safety and security.
We were able to enhance recreational and green spaces throughout the community. Through the budget I secured $400,000 for upgrades at One Room Schoolhouse Playground in Jackson Heights. With help from Borough President Melinda Katz and State Senator Michael Gianaris we were also able to allocate funding for a dog run and upgraded basketball courts at Triborough Lot C. Finally, Borough President Katz and I also worked together to secure 1.2 million dollars for a sorely needed repair of Hallets Cove Playground, where trails of weeds have punched through the uneven blacktop. To paraphrase the author Robert Caro, a park is probably the most visible symbol that shows that the city cares about the community and the people in it. These improvements will ensure that our families have spaces to relax and play together.
We also helped make our streets cleaner. Litter and graffiti impacts residents’ sidewalk accessibility, quality of life, and shopping habits. Since we began our Keep Astoria Clean campaign in 2014, we have seen a reduction in litter and improved street cleanliness. This fiscal year we allocated over $200,000 to street cleaning, weeding, and graffiti-removal services throughout the community.
We’re also continuing to engage the community in the budget process. Participatory Budgeting was a huge success last year, and we hope to make it an even bigger success. We asked the neighborhood – What would you do with one million dollars? – and the responses to both the question and the sheer fact that we had asked the question were overwhelmingly positive. Not only did residents vote for their favorite projects, but all the project proposals on the ballot were created by community volunteers. Our stalwart budget delegates worked closely with the city agencies to craft viable proposals. Finally, over 2,000 residents came out to cast their vote, one of the highest totals in the city. The winning projects included district-wide technology upgrades at public schools, a new dog park at Triborough Lot C, and a new school playground at I.S. 126. I’m so proud of everyone who schlepped out on those cold, rainy nights to suggest new ideas, talk with agency representatives and ultimately show that real civic engagement requires getting active in your community.
This cycle, I set aside 1.5 million dollars, an increase of 500,000 dollars. The ballot will include updates at public schools, park renovations, street upgrades, and other improvements at public facilities. Stay tuned, as we’ll be announcing the final ballot in the coming weeks!
We’ve also been fighting to make our streets safer for everyone.
For years, I’ve heard concerns from residents about cars speeding through the residential blocks surrounding the Grand Central. Cars and trucks often cut through to save time getting to the bridge, and there have been dozens of injuries due to traffic crashes in this area since 2009. I’m proud to say that this past September, we unveiled our first Neighborhood Slow Zone. The zone reduces the speed limit to 20 miles per hour from Astoria Boulevard to 30th Avenue between 21st Street and Steinway Street. Each residential block within the zone has several new speed bumps and increased signage. Thanks to the Neighborhood Slow Zone, pedestrians will have an easier time navigating and crossing our streets and we’ll be that much closer to our goal of Vision Zero.
We also implemented new traffic safety improvements on 21st Street.
After being elected, that was where I held my first press conference. We stood with the organizations that surround the street, including I.S. 126, Archbishop Iakovos Senior Center, Community Board 1, and Queensview. We showed how many would benefit from better street safety along this corridor.
I’m proud that this summer, we had the opportunity to be back on 21st Street. This time, we stood with the DOT in success.
21st Street now has Leading Pedestrian Intervals, giving people more time to cross the street without cars in their way. Curb extensions reduce the distance between each side of the street. And added traffic lights make the corridor easier for pedestrians to navigate.
These safety improvements will make our streets more navigable and desirable.
Last year, we laid out a vision for the reimagining of the Astoria waterfront. I’m very excited that starting in 2017, the ferry will return after 81 years. Not only will the ferry be returning, but the city’s Economic Development Corporation heeded my suggestion in last year’s state of the district address and connected our ferry stop to Roosevelt Island, where the Cornell Technion center will be opening, Long Island City, and Manhattan. For far too long, Hallets Peninsula was neglected by the rest of the city around it. Many longtime residents vividly recall how, growing up, they felt that they were simply not welcome east of 21st Street. Now, however, our community is being brought back together through the waterfront that birthed it, and the future of the Hallets Peninsula couldn’t be brighter.
Finally, we can’t discuss the waterfront in western Queens without bringing up some of the existing uses. Some of it, like sewage treatment, is unpleasant but necessary to maintain a basic standard of living in our city. For over 70 years, the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant has been our neighbor, and in that time the residents of Astoria Heights, Jackson Heights, and East Elmhurst have never fully gotten used to waking up to the smell of raw sewage. I grew up near the corner of 42nd and Ditmars, and I vividly recall my mom coming home from work with tears in her eyes because the stench was that bad. Well, I’m proud to report that the city’s Department of Environmental Protection is working to mitigate the stench through several measures. First, DEP is already in the process of capping the sludge tanks at the Bowery Bay facility, a project that is scheduled to be completed in June. Second, DEP is moving forward with its Long Term Control Plans to clean the waterways adjacent to our district. As you can see by the red dots on the map, our area is surrounded by large combined sewer overflows that have poured sewage into the rivers. Over the next year, DEP will put out its plan to dredge the waterways around Flushing Bay and Bowery Bay, helping to further mitigate the stench. My son Niko plays little league over at ElmJack Park – and he loves everything about it, except for the fact that he has to play by what he calls Rotten Egg River. Well, Niko, I’m excited to say that Rotten Egg River will soon be a thing of the past!
We have so much to be proud of, but the work is never done. Last year, I talked about how my ultimate goal is to see a more sustainable, engaged, and inclusive city by the year 2050. No city can meet the needs of its citizens if it cannot achieve this. People are unable to fully engage their community when the fear of being swept away by rising seas or by rising rents paralyzes their resolve. An unsustainable city thus cannot include people when they no longer feel that they are part of their community, despite the fact that they are what made the community great in the first place. Looking to 2050 means we must redouble our efforts to make sure everyone in our community feels welcome and part of something bigger that will endure for future generations of New Yorkers.
For example, I’m excited about what we’ve accomplished so far to make our city’s buildings greener, but there is more to be done. In the One City: Built to Last plan, the Mayor set out an ambitious goal to have 100 megawatts of solar capacity installed on city buildings by 2025, enough to power 170,000 homes. This has the potential to be a major victory for our city. To reach that goal, however, we must have a strong framework. Earlier this month, we held a hearing on Intro. 478, which would require the city to take stock of all city-owned buildings and determine whether they would be good candidates to have solar panels installed. Similar to the new geothermal law, the city must install solar panels where it is cost effective. Since the cost of solar gets cheaper and cheaper every year the city will also be required to keep track of each building where the math doesn’t work out and reassess the property every 5 years. With less than 9 years to go to meet our deadline, we haven’t any time to spare. I call on my colleagues in the Council to pass Intro. 478 this year, and for the mayor to sign it into law.
Secondly, we must also continue to reduce the emissions and pollutants that come from the heating oil that most buildings use. Over 70% of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. Last year, I shared my plans to introduce a bill that would raise the level of biodiesel currently in heating oil from 2 percent to 20 percent over a 15 year timeframe. We held a hearing on the bill in October.
Increasing the heating blend to just 5 percent would be equivalent to taking 44,000 cars off the road permanently. What’s more, the price of biodiesel continues to match or beat the price of petroleum-based fuel oil. It’s crucial that we pass this legislation as soon as possible to give homeowners, building managers and stakeholders ample time to prepare for next winter, and I call on the Council to pass Int. 642.
In the coming weeks, I will also be introducing a bill to streamline wind power adoption. The biggest complaint that we continue to see with renewable installation is the red tape that property owners have to deal with. As Chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee, but also as someone who manages a building in the neighborhood, I know that the worst possible outcome for renewable energy is the building owner who is interested in sustainability – but who sees the headache involved and says “To heck with it!” One of my biggest priorities in my remaining time in office is to eliminate “To heck with it!” and that’s why I’m proud of this bill. It will direct the Department of Buildings to presumptively accept major standards set out for wind turbines without requiring the applicant to jump through additional hoops to prove that the technology is appropriate.
While buildings are the biggest piece of our push to reach a more sustainable future, they are by no means the only piece – we must also address our transportation infrastructure. For New Yorkers who drive, the quest to find parking is one of the most agonizing and frustrating dilemmas that life can throw at you. This problem is far worse if you want to be an environmentally responsible motorist and drive an electric car. Unless you have a garage with a charger, there’s nowhere for you to plug in. This acts as a huge disincentive to further adoption of electric vehicles, and this needs to change. I will be introducing legislation in the coming months to create a pilot program to create designated on-street parking reserved for electric vehicles, or EVs, and I will work with the administration to see this swiftly implemented.
The reason that EVs can be such a great option for New Yorkers looking to go green is simple – our electrical grid is slowly but surely getting greener and greener. In June of 2014, the New York metropolitan area finally came into compliance with the fine particulate matter standard of the Clean Air Act of 1990. Exposure to particulate matter is linked to asthma, irregular heartbeat, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease. Yet this victory can still be rendered hollow if the power plants are allowed to burn dirty fuel oils. I call on all the energy companies that operate in western Queens to commit to using the cleanest fuels available for our local plants, and to shut down any that cannot be retrofitted to run cleaner. If they cannot do that, I will use my authority as Chair of the Environmental Protection Committee to call them to the stand and explain why they cannot do so. New York City children continue to have significantly higher asthma rates than the national average – this status quo is simply unacceptable.
While we’re working to meet our NYC2050 goals of ensuring a more sustainable, inclusive and engaged city, I want to speak tonight more specifically about Astoria2050.
Astoria’s most valuable asset is our children – the future of our neighborhood. Their classrooms are the keystone of our educational system, and we must make sure our children and teachers have all the tools they need. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing our Science 2050 Learning Initiative.
First, I have already allocated 1 million dollars in capital funding each year to 15 public schools for technology upgrades including computers, laptops, printers, and SMART Boards. I believe it’s important that we connect our environmental goals with education. This year, I allocated funding to study the installation of solar panels right here at PS 122. Solar panels will help us reach our city’s commitment to reduce our carbon emissions 80% by 2050 and would also allow children to learn first-hand about 21st Century green technology. Our children need to be prepared to grapple with the problems that will confront them over the course of this century, and our schools must be equipped to teach this. They will become the leaders that must think creatively and critically to solve the problems of the 21st century and climate change. That’s why we must invest in our children by giving them the tools to win that fight.
Climate change is affecting our world in so many ways. One example can be seen in the recent California drought. A report by the University of California estimates that the cost to the state will be at least 2.7 billion dollars, including to the lucrative almond and wine making industries. Right there you’ve implicated economics and agriculture to name a few – yet when our children discuss climate change at all in class, it is solely as a bullet point in a science curriculum. My bill, Resolution 375, calls on New York State to include climate change education as part of the curriculum as a whole for grades K-12. In fact, it was a young girl who lost her home during Superstorm Sandy who showed me why this is so important. Annie Willis traveled 2 hours every day from the Rockaways to Astoria to go to high school right here in the neighborhood. She was determined to learn everything about what may have lurked behind the nightmare storm that leveled her community. Turning her story to triumph, she and her colleagues at Global Kids (with the help of one of our own local stars, Evie Hantzopoulos) created this plan. Well, I stand here today to make this dream a reality. All of our kids should learn climate education from our youngest to our college-ready. Despite what some people running for president may want you to believe, the realities of the 21st century aren’t going away and we must prepare our kids to be the leaders we KNOW they can be.
Finally, in order to provide our kids these spaces to learn about sustainability and resiliency, we must support our schools to meet these challenges. In addition to the 1 million dollars we spend every year to provide technology upgrades, I am committing tonight to building/or improving science learning spaces in all schools in Council District 22. I will be partnering with our great Borough President Melinda Katz who has been a fine champion for our kids to make our Science 2050 Learning Initiative a reality. Hands-on sustainability education and spaces for teachers to make it come to life will ensure 2050 will be secure for my son’s and all our children’s future.
I turn now to speak on the jewel in our neighborhood’s crown – Astoria Park. The land that now comprises the park has long been a popular spot, from the Lenape fishing villages, to the grand summer homes of the Hoyts and Barclays. Although Astoria Park officially came to be in 1913, it took more than two decades, and the intervention of Robert Moses and the Works Progress Administration, for Astoria Park’s original grand plan to come to fruition. When it did, however, the result was spectacular. Where there had been rocky outcroppings and fallow fields there were now playgrounds, lawns, and ballfields. The hill that had once hosted the summer homes of the wealthy few became Astoria Pool and Play Center, the virtual summer home for generations of western Queens children. The pool, thought to be one of the finest in the world when it opened, was recognized by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2006 as being “one of the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States.”
Astoria Park is an integral part of our neighborhood’s heritage, and we have a duty to ensure that its beauty and splendor is preserved for the next generation. We also have a duty to fully assess the needs of both the park and the people for whom the park exists. That’s why tonight, I am calling for a comprehensive plan for reinvestment in Astoria Park.
We don’t need drastic overhauls – we can simply find ways to accommodate new users into existing areas. I’m sure many here can remember skateboarders using various parks much to the chagrin of everyone else trying to enjoy those spaces. Taking advantage of an underutilized storage area under the Triborough Bridge, my predecessor Peter Vallone Jr. proposed that a skate park be constructed there – and now that skate park is one of the most popular features in Astoria Park. By considering the needs of the community, we were able to improve the experiences of people all over the district who had previously complained about skateboarding taking over Athens Square and other spaces.
This process is already playing itself out again organically, but this time with soccer. All over Astoria I hear clamoring for a place where children and teens can play soccer, while once again people complain about spaces intended for other uses being taken over by kids imagining themselves as the next Lionel Messi or Carli Lloyd. Where the search for the skate park took some creative thinking, here, we have an underutilized space that is already an ideal location for such a field. If you walk around the center of the Astoria Park Jogging Track, you will see the scars of a litany of conflicting uses and activities. In some places the grass is fully worn down and washed away from unregulated games of soccer being played there already, while other spaces look to have been left alone for years. I think you’ll agree that this is not the best use of such a large piece of public land – and so to kick off our comprehensive re-envisioning of Astoria Park, I am calling on the Parks Department to transform the underused center of the track into a FIFA regulation-size soccer field.
By building a real soccer field here, we will be able to give everyone a space in which to play without interfering with other park-goers. Building an officially Parks-sanctioned space will also allow us to apportion time-slots to players and teams so that all uses of the track complex can be regulated and we won’t have errant soccer balls flying in joggers’ paths. Finally, consider the track’s position near the waterfront, in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge. With such a gorgeous backdrop, this field could potentially be a marquee site for tournaments and other high-profile games. Although this would require a capital investment to resurface the central area and lay down new turf, I believe this space presents a wonderful opportunity to bring our neighborhood together to play the world’s game in the world’s borough.
Also as part of the capital plan, we will invest close to 3 million dollars into Charybdis Playground and build more play equipment, and a brand new spray shower area that is age appropriate to a wide range of children. We will invest around 1.5 million dollars into the landscape of the park itself, as erosion control is desperately needed in several areas.
We’re going to address the pool complex. We will commit 2.4 million dollars to the long overdue renovation to the bathrooms and locker room facilities. I know that this has been one of the biggest complaints in the park over the past few years – and you’re right! There’s no reason that a parent should have to worry that a child is going to go into the bathroom to wash their hands and still come out dirtier than when they came in. We’ll also break ground on phase one of the amphitheater project, opening up the full space to the neighborhood after decades.
Before any of the new proposals are implemented, we will engage with community members to hear their input and feedback.
All told, this plan is estimated at around 15 million dollars between funding already allocated and funding that I will work to secure in future city budgets. This may sound like a large number, but it is nothing compared to the investment in human capital it represents – children getting a needed break from their iPads, adults improving their health and fitness, and families building bonds together on some magical Saturday afternoon in the park. Astoria Park is now over 100 years old, and it needs our care and investment to ensure that it remains our neighborhood’s heart and soul for the next hundred years.
We also need to continue to reimagine our streets. Last year I asked you to join me in examining our streets and whether they truly met the needs of everyone who uses them – drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Now we need to take that one step further and ask whether we are doing enough to consider our streets in relation to parks, schools, and other neighborhood destinations. As part of our reenvisioning of Astoria Park, we must also re-envision the streets around the park. In the last year, the area north of Hoyt Avenue has seen 72 traffic injuries – and one death. We’ve had a lot of success putting traffic safety measures into place in southern Astoria – now it’s time to do so in the northern half of the community.
First, we need to break up the long stretches where there are few to no traffic control devices of any kind. New York City is one of the most densely populated areas in the Western Hemisphere, and our streets need to reflect that. I’m proud to say that we achieved a major victory earlier this month when we announced that DOT would be putting three traffic lights on 21st Avenue at 23rd, 24th, and Crescent Streets. Six years ago, after a man was killed crossing the street to buy milk, I stood beside some of you to call for more traffic safety along 21st Avenue. Going to the store should not be a life or death proposition, and it was unacceptable that there was nothing along that stretch. I will be working with DOT over the course of 2016 to conduct studies of other intersections to determine where additional lights may be appropriate.
Secondly, I will be working with DOT, Assemblymember Simotas and the Community Board to implement a plan for safer corridors along the streets surrounding Astoria Park. On 20th Avenue alone, over 75 percent of drivers have been found speeding. As part of our plan, we’ll add new dual direction bike lanes, separated by at least a three foot buffer from the car travel lanes. Shore Boulevard will also be converted to a one way street, keeping it open for vehicular traffic. It will also keep all its current parking spots. By making this space, however, we will be able to remove the bikepaths from the park itself, eliminating the dangerous dance of cyclists, pedestrians, and joggers on the meandering park paths. We will also add ADA accessible ramps to each street crossing, making it easier for parkgoers with strollers and wheelchairs to get into the park. This plan already has strong local support, as Community Board 1’s Transportation Committee voted unanimously for it. As I said earlier, our goal here should be to find a way to bring every use of our streets into harmony with each other, and I believe that this is a balanced and measured approach to how we parcel out scarce space in an urban setting.
Finally, I am calling on the DOT to bring a slow zone to northern Astoria. Last year, the slow zone south of Astoria Boulevard was unveiled to near universal acclaim – and instead of hearing “That’s awful – get rid of it!” we heard “That’s great – we need more of them!” Well, I’m happy to say that not only do I support this call, but I believe that the area north of Hoyt Avenue is the perfect area for the program. It’s lower density, predominantly one and two family homes, yet still subject to hectic traffic from the bridge and the factories north of 20th Avenue. That’s why the best approach would be to create a new slow zone from the East River to 31st Street, and from 20th Avenue to Ditmars Boulevard.
Once that zone is established, I propose that we expand it to Hoyt Avenue, encompassing the entire northwestern portion of the district. When pedestrians are hit by cars travelling at 20 miles per hour, they have a 95 percent survival rate – and that is ultimately why I am so serious about this initiative. Last summer, 21 year old Betty Jean DiBiaso was killed by a hit-and-run driver only a block from here. She was one of over 32,000 Americans who were killed in car crashes every year. We can’t accept this as the cost of doing business, and that’s why I’ll be fighting to bring better and more livable streets to western Queens.
Neighborhoods grow, communities evolve, and even our most hallowed institutions are not immune to change. Some shops close down and new restaurants open. Yet the things that really make us a strong community and a strong city – our strength in diversity and our ability to come together for a common purpose. These strengths will endure no matter what cosmetic changes we see in our daily lives. Astoria demonstrated this very recently.
As we’ve all seen in the news, our community came together in support of our diversity. A small business owner who lives in Astoria, Mr. Sarker Haque, was viciously assaulted two blocks from here simply based on who he was and his religious beliefs.
Our neighborhood proved that this kind of hate has never had a place in the Astoria I know and love. My government colleagues and I put together a rally to show this man and his family our support. Although we weren’t quite sure what to expect on short notice, the response from our community was miraculous. Scores of people came out on a weekday afternoon to stand with us – so many that the 114th Precinct had to temporarily close the street to accommodate everyone. Hundreds, if not thousands, sent letters and took to social media to wish the Haque family well and tell them that they are as much a part of the fabric of Astoria as anyone.
That’s why I’m so excited to see what the future of western Queens has to offer. I’ve heard the scoffing of cynics saying that our neighborhood’s best days are behind us, and the mere use of the word diversity as the punchline to their latest jab at our home. I stand here today to say, that’s a lot of nonsense. Vibrance and diversity aren’t a punchline – they are a lifeline, the roots that strengthen the tree of our community. Period. Even in the face of unprecedented challenges and hardships, we are one District, one voice. This is why the state of our district continues to be strong. I thank everyone for joining us here tonight.