Council Member Costa Constantinides
State of the District Address
Delivered at I.S. 126 on January 31, 2017
Thank you all for being here today. Before I begin, I want to thank Principal Angueira and everyone here at IS 126 for allowing us the privilege of using this space tonight. Each year I’ve been in office I have hosted one of these events to update the community on what I have been working on in the Council and in Astoria. My original plan this year was to come speak about much of the same: to discuss some of the great projects that we have worked on and some new and exciting projects that are on the horizon. However, something happened that changed the way I wanted to present this speech.
We are still emerging from one of the most unusual and divisive presidential campaigns and transitions that this country has ever seen. The partisan gulf, which has been widening steadily over several decades, now seems to be a vast and unbridgeable chasm. Friends stopped speaking to friends – even family members stopped speaking to each other in some instances. Strangers started verbally and even physically assaulting their neighbors. It has been ugly. But now, in the New Year, we have a chance to reaffirm our shared values. Tonight will not just be about looking back and taking stock, but also looking ahead to what we can do, better and grander, in years to come. So not only would I like to discuss the good work that has been done in our neighborhood over the last year, but I would also like to discuss who we are as a community.
Locally, we’ve achieved a great deal of success in making our city a greener and more sustainable place to live, and as chair of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, I’m proud to be on the forefront. In 2016, the Council passed five of my environmental bills, on initiatives ranging from increasing solar panel adoption on city buildings to helping make commercial buildings more energy efficient. The two I’m most proud of, though, are my bills to increase the amount of biofuel used in home heating oil, and to bring more electric car charging stations to New York City. Under the new biofuel standards, hundreds of millions of gallons of fossil fuels that would have been burned in our homes over the next several decades will be traded for cleaner burning biofuel. This will, in turn, prevent millions of tons of greenhouse gases, soot, and other pollutants from entering our atmosphere.
Secondly, under my new law on electric car chargers, the city will now be required to put at least 25 chargers in publicly accessible locations such as Muni-Lots. It will also require the city to study the feasibility of installing electric chargers on streets, so that curbside charging, a technology already used in cities from San Francisco to Boston and Baltimore, will finally be brought to the streets of New York City.
Legislatively, we have taken important steps to protect our environment and combat climate change. It’s also important, however, that the public has a solid understanding of these issues and their importance. This year the council passed my resolution to call upon New York State to not only teach up-to-date climate science in the school curriculum, but to talk about in the context of every appropriate class. When each new year smashes the heat record of the previous year, we need to talk about it. Where climate change affects the economics of crop yields we need to talk about it. Where climate change impacts our national security and political stability because millions lose their homes and livelihoods due to sea rise, drought, or other natural disasters, we need to talk about it.
We must ensure that the next generation understands the seriousness of climate change. In the era of fake news and information bubbles, it is even more imperative that they can learn the correct science and information, based on the facts and not on ideology. If we can accomplish this, then we can trust that they will continue to protect this planet for themselves and for the generations yet to come.
Cleaning and greening our city is not limited to the big stuff, however. There’s a great deal that we’ve done locally to ensure a strong focus on keeping Astoria clean. We engaged a program called ACE to expand sweeping and trash collection on 23rd Avenue, Steinway Street, and Ditmars Boulevard, as well as 30th Avenue, Newtown Road, and Shore Boulevard. ACE specifically employs homeless members of the community, both providing this cleaning service, and helping to empower those most in need of help. Since they began their work last summer, ACE has collected over 150,000 pounds of trash from our streets. We have also engaged programs to clean graffiti from walls around the neighborhood, and to paint colorful murals instead. Our streets should not only be clean, but beautiful as well.
One thing I’m especially proud of this past year was the strong budget we passed for Astoria. That good work that ACE performed, for example, came thanks to a $200,000 allocation from the NYC Clean Up Initiative.
The fiscal 2017 budget includes still more efforts to keep Astoria clean and healthy. I was able to expand the GreenerNYC Initiative and now over two million dollars will be available to help environmentally focused organizations in their missions to encourage advocacy, education, community service, and green-job training. These programs are paving the way to making sure that we ready for the next wave of innovation that will determine the jobs of tomorrow.
We have also included several important items for schools. Last year I announced my Science 2050 initiative to provide state-of-the-art equipment and facilities to every school in our district over five years. Well, this year I’m proud to announce that we are completing the first phase of this initiative. I secured capital funding for a new STEM lab in the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, to promote learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I was also able to fund the construction of hydroponic science labs for PS 122 and PS 70. These labs use water systems for plant growth, and will provide hands on learning opportunities for biology, agriculture, technology, and nutrition. Lastly, for the third year in row, we spent a million dollars on technology upgrades for all 17 schools in the neighborhood. We purchased computer upgrades, laptops, smart boards, and tablets. Students will have access to up-to-date technology and learning methods, so they can stay competitive in the future.
Another program that I’m extremely pleased with is the Summer Youth Employment Program. We have $39 million dollars in this program, and it helps secure summer jobs for over 60,000 young people across the city. We also expanded the Cultural After-School Adventures Initiative, known as CASA to provide after-school activities in music and theater. I’m proud to partner with groups like the Astoria Performing Arts Center, CUNY Creative Arts Team, and the Little Orchestra Society to bring even more performing arts programs to our students.
In addition to keeping our environment healthy, and our minds healthy, we keep our food healthy, too. Through the GrowNYC program, I was able to help fund a Youthmarket, a network of local farm stands that employ neighborhood youth to sell fresh produce at Ditmars Park. The market was a great success in 2016, and I’m looking forward to seeing it return in July.
This year we are again conducting participatory budgeting. We have set aside 1 million dollars of discretionary funding to be spent on projects decided by residents. Members of the community have come together to propose improvements to our neighborhood, and have been hard at work preparing the ballot this month. Stay tuned, as we’ll be announcing the ballot and the voting schedule soon!
I strongly encourage everyone to come out and vote. In small, local elections like this, a few dozen votes can tip the scales. This is the most direct way to make your voices heard in the process. Last year, residents voted to add water fountains and gaming tables to Astoria Park, to repair and upgrade the handball courts and fitness equipment at Bulova Moser Park, and countdown clocks for bus routes throughout the neighborhood. I am excited to see what will be selected this year, and I hope to see each and every one of you cast a ballot to make that determination.
2016 also marked a crucial milestone for healthcare delivery in our neighborhood, as we were able to cut the ribbon on the brand new emergency department at Mount Sinai Queens. Given the catastrophic losses of hospital beds and emergency facilities in our borough over the last 10 years, this project was sorely needed. Additionally, the Council has allocated over 5.2 million dollars since I took office towards improving the hospital by adding a new PET scan machine, a robotic surgeon, and a UV disinfection unit.
I’m also proud of the work that the Council has done this year to increase our organ donation rates. In November, the mayor signed my bill to direct city agencies to help New Yorkers fill out organ donor cards when asked. This means that, any time New Yorkers interact with one of over dozen city agencies, they will be given the opportunity to potentially save up to eight lives and heal up to 100 more through tissue donation. Right now, New York State ranks dead last in terms of organ donation rates. With the combination of this bill as well as recent legislation passed in Albany, I believe 2017 can be the year that New York shows what it means to truly be there for those in need.
If we want a truly healthy community, however, we must ensure that there is enough park space for recreation and fitness. Over the last three years, I have been able to secure nearly four and a half million dollars for improvements to our parks. During this term, I have been able to bring funding or begin construction on improvements for more than half of the parks in our district. We were also able to secure over 3 million dollars for upgrades to Charybdis Playground with our Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Finally, we fought for, and won, 30 million dollars from the administration for renovations and construction in Astoria Park. The two town hall meetings that we’ve held to discuss what the community wants from Astoria Park were great successes, and I want to thank everyone in the community who came out.
I’m so proud that, among other things, we’ll finally bring a real soccer field to Astoria Park! We’re not stopping there, however – we’re also now working with the administration to bring the NYC Soccer Initiative to Astoria. Under this program the city will build mini-pitches in underutilized spaces. This way our neighborhood will have plenty of space for would-be soccer players practicing their footwork as well as full teams looking to play the beautiful game.
We are also working to construct an eco-dock this year at Hallet’s Peninsula. This will, after more than 80 years, return waterfront access to the residents of Astoria. The dock will allow for students to study underwater environmental science and marine life. I again want to thank Borough President Melinda Katz for her steadfast support of this project.
No community is truly healthy, however, if it is not safe. Overall, Astoria remains a safe and secure place to live, with major crimes continuing to trend downward precinct-wide, borough-wide, and citywide – and we should thank our NYPD officers for that and they are here tonight. The hardworking men and women of the NYPD, however, never rest on their laurels. Recently the 114th Precinct launched the Neighborhood Policing Program, which created new patrol sectors that better conform to the neighborhood. Each of these sectors is staffed with dedicated neighborhood coordination officers whose job will be to work directly with members of the community. Instead of having to run around the whole precinct, these officers will be in the same area in the same times every day. They have also given out their contact information so that anyone who has any questions or concerns about the safety of their part of the neighborhood has a direct point of contact. I’m so proud of the NYPD for their dedication to forging a more enduring bond with communities across the city. It’s work that fulfills and validates the indomitable spirit of officers like Detective Steven McDonald, may God rest his soul, who showed how forgiveness and respect can be such a potent balm for the forces of hate and discord that sometimes bubble up from the cracks of our society.
Detective Mcdonald’s legacy is one that I hope to live up to in the weeks and months to come. We must find a way to locate tolerance and respect within each of us and each other. At the same time, we must be true to our core principles of justice and inclusiveness that are at the heart of what make our city and country great. One thing that I will unequivocally promise you here and now is that these principles will be my guiding star as your Council Member.
Together we’ve accomplished so much over the last three years, but there is always more to do. One thing we should all take to heart this year is that while there are no permanent victories, there are no permanent defeats either. We must all steel ourselves to fight another day for the ideals we hold dear and to continue building the neighborhood and city we want to leave for our children and grandchildren.
First, we must ensure that everyone in our district has a neighborhood park or playground near them that has clean and modern amenities. So far during my tenure in office we have been able to break ground on six major park renovations, and have allocated or secured funding for another five projects throughout Astoria and Jackson Heights. This is a great start – but there’s more that we can do. That’s why, tonight, I want to announce my plan to secure funding for all remaining parks or playgrounds in district 22 over the next five years, including a renovation of the baseball diamond at Whitey Ford Field, the playground and spray shower equipment at Ditmars Park, Gorman Playground in Jackson Heights and Woodtree Playground in Northern Astoria. Regardless of what happens this November I want to ensure that the course is set to guarantee that all our parks have received some investment by the beginning of the next decade.
I want to give people an opportunity to reimagine and re-envision all our public space – not only parks, but streets as well. Steinway Street has long been the beating commercial heart of Astoria. As you traverse it from 34th Avenue to Astoria Boulevard and beyond you see people from all walks of life mingling as they frequent a wide variety of establishments from big name brand stores, salons, and restaurants from all corners of the globe. You can find suits, video games, sporting equipment, or Middle Eastern goods. Yet, for a number of reasons, business along Steinway Street has been in flux for several years now, making it the right moment to ask, once again, “what is a street?” and “what is it for?”
That’s why, tonight, I’m calling for a comprehensive reinvestment in Steinway Street that ensures that our neighborhood’s hub continues to thrive in the 21st century. This would be twofold. First, it must include a reevaluation of the streetscape to ensure that it is both as safe as can be, and as conducive to commerce as can be. As there have been 249 traffic-related injuries, and 95 specific pedestrian injuries, along Steinway Street over the last five years, it’s high time we take a hard look.
One thing I’m sure we’ve all experienced is the frustration that comes over you if you need to get to the midblock stores. You may need to get to the Gap, for example, and then go over to the Children’s Place across the street. These two stores are roughly equidistant between 31st Avenue and Broadway, meaning that a person who wants to do the right thing and use the proper crosswalk needs to walk over 1000 extra feet, or around a fifth of a mile, just to get to their next destination. Someone who is not so inclined will just run across against traffic, but for the mom with the stroller, or the family out shopping, this is the last thing you want to do. That’s why I am calling for the Department of Transportation to place mid-block crosswalks along Steinway Street. I also believe that there are other traffic safety measures, including leading pedestrian intervals or LPIs, which need to be considered. These allow for a few extra seconds for pedestrians to cross before vehicles are cleared to go. Our neighborhood already has LPIs at multiple intersections along 21st Street and Ditmars Boulevard, so I’m confident that they can work along Steinway Street as well.
Secondly, we must also consider how to bring more public space to the area around Steinway Street. One thing that many, if not most, great shopping areas have to bring people in is a place to sit and read a newspaper, chat with a friend, or simply take in the hustle and bustle. In the city, for example, you have Union and Madison Squares along Broadway, or Fifth Avenue feeding into Central Park or Bryant Park. And while not nearly as elegant as Central Park, even the food courts and sitting areas in malls fit this category too. With Steinway Street, however, there is no natural outlet for this – there’s no park or plaza within walking distance. I’d like to see this change. That’s why, tonight, I’m also calling for a community working group with a wide range of local stakeholders to come together and discuss where we can look to create this space. I think that a good faith collaborative effort can help us find the next great meeting space in Western Queens and I will be reaching out in the coming weeks to get the ball rolling.
At this point, you know what drives and inspires me. I care about our environments, from the small scale of the streetscape and the local park to the wider world around it. And let’s not mince words – our larger environment is now at a crossroads. Whether you supported Donald Trump in the election or not, one thing that cannot be denied is that he has made clear that he intends to undo all the work that we have done to protect consumers, workers, and our environment. The cavalry isn’t coming. For the foreseeable future, the fight to secure the progress we have made, such as the fight against climate change – must be fought by city and state governments across the country.
That’s why it’s up to us to address one of the biggest sources of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in our neighborhood – our power plants. Over half of New York City’s power comes from western Queens. With these plants we have no shortage of pollutants in our air, and the neighborhoods closest to these plants breathe in dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter. With the recent announcement that Indian Point Nuclear power plant will be closing by the end of 2021 it becomes all the more critical that we ensure that our local plants are burning the cleanest fuels they possibly can. That’s why I’ve already taken several steps to use the power of my office to bring pressure on these plants to be better neighbors, and will be looking to take additional steps as we progress through 2017.
Last November, I held a hearing of the Environmental Protection Committee to conduct oversight on these power plants and their fuel usage. In the process, we learned that several of our local plants still burn Number 6 oil, the most sulfur and soot-laden fuel available on the market. I should note, by the way, that they did not give us this information voluntarily – my office had to submit a FOIL request to the state Department of Environmental Conservation just to get the data! We found that, over the last few years, these plants have burned millions of gallons of 6 oil, including over 15 million gallons at Big Allis alone between 2014 and 2015. This comes with costs. Communities with power plants have worse air quality and could be at greater risk of respiratory illness.
The good news is that, thanks to an air code update that the Council passed in 2015, 6 oil must be phased out across the board in 2020, and 4 oil, which is only slightly better than 6, must be phased out by 2030. I believe, however, that when the science shows that these oils are harmful as they are, waiting 13 years to fully phase them out is simply unacceptable for our community. That’s why I will be introducing legislation tomorrow with my colleague Ritchie Torres to move up the phase-out of number 4 oil from 2030 to 2025 in all our local power plants. When other alternatives are readily available, there’s no excuse for burning this toxic oil right down the street from some of our most vulnerable populations.
I want to be as forthcoming as possible here. I dream of a future in which the parks and greenways of the western Queens waterfront run unobstructed from Hunter’s Point to Hallet’s Point, and from Astoria Park to Luyster Creek. Regardless of what Donald Trump or anyone else tells you, fossil fuels are the road to the past, not the future.
Secondly, where the federal government drops the ball on environmental justice, I want New York City to pick it up and run with it. In Astoria, as elsewhere, the burdens of the power plants and other sources of pollution fall disproportionately on lower-income communities and communities of color. Children shouldn’t be growing up breathing dirtier air and getting sicker just because of how much money their parents have, or because of the color of their skin. That’s why I’m calling on the Council to pass the Environmental Justice Act that I am co-sponsoring along with Councilwoman Inez Barron of Brooklyn. With this Act, the city would map out the communities most impacted and put procedures in place to direct the city to work with the community to mitigate these impacts. No other major city in the country has passed this kind of legislation, so we have a golden opportunity to ensure that New York City continues to lead on the fight to secure a better future for everyone.
A better future also means a built environment that meets all our needs. Our neighborhood continues to grow and evolve in ways that probably seemed unimaginable not all that long ago. 21st Street in particular has been a hotspot for these development trends in the last 10 years. Since the neighborhood rezoning was passed in 2010, downzoning some areas and upzoning others, the new frontier of Astoria can be seen from the steps of this school as you look north towards Astoria Park. While I welcome the opportunity to secure new, affordable housing options where they are sorely needed, I also think that this represented a missed opportunity for the city that can be summed up in one simple map. As this map shows, western Astoria is most at risk from catastrophic storms and climate change – in other words, our neighborhood has no time for development as usual.
That’s why, tonight, I’m proposing that the city commit to requiring deep greenhouse gas emission reduction any time a developer seeks an upzoning. Already the city gives out what are called “bulk bonuses,” or additional floor space, if a developer agrees to provide certain community benefits. Under this framework, I propose we add a new option, called 80×50 certification. In order to get the extra floor space, the developer would have to demonstrate that their building will produce at least 80% fewer carbon emissions than a similarly situated building. This will in turn have several positive side effects. First, by requiring developers to green their buildings up front, they will avoid having to commit to more costly retrofits down the road, while their initial investment in renewable technology will pay off long term, leaving fewer costs that could be passed on to tenants. Secondly, a comprehensive incentive program like this will further spur demand for new green jobs that we know we need to thrive in the 21st century.
When over 70% of our emissions come from our buildings, we have to consider bold, new ideas. That’s why I believe that, by making 80×50 certification a cornerstone of our zoning framework, we can fully set ourselves on a self-sustaining path to a greener New York City.
It’s important, however, to keep perspective on the problems we face and the methods by which we may seek to redress them. While I do believe in supporting responsible development, we also know from experience that development alone will not ease our housing crises. Many, if not most, New Yorkers want nothing more than to stay in their homes and neighborhoods. And we should want that too – there is nothing gained when the rent becomes so high that the people that give a neighborhood its character are forced to leave. One of the main reasons for this dates back over 20 years, when the City Council voted to open the door to vacancy decontrol, or the process by which a rent regulated apartment leaves rent protection and hits the open market. Back then it was thought that only a few neighborhoods in Manhattan would ever be affected by this program. 20 years and over 130,000 deregulated apartments later, however, we know all too well how mistaken that belief was. Unfortunately, the Council can’t even fix its mistake on its own here, since the law is written to only allow Albany to shut the door once the Council opened it.
As your representative on the City Council, however, I believe that the first step is to take responsibility, recognize our mistake, and do what we can to fix it. That’s why I’m calling on the state legislature and the governor to support legislation to repeal vacancy decontrol for all rent regulated New York City apartments. By doing so, we can give the folks who have helped make our communities what they are a fighting chance to remain and continue to be the bedrock of the neighborhood. We would also be striking a blow at a sudden resurgence of an idea that often rears its head in our culture – that collective solutions to our problems are simply too much hassle and that in the end we’re all better off on our own.
This brings me to my final point this evening. I’m sure that, like many of you, I did not foresee that the year 2017 would force upon me a duty to re-establish and fight for truths we once assumed were self-evident. History is chock full of examples of what happens when we take this road – and none of them are good. Yet that’s where we find ourselves now, so I’d like to use this opportunity to reorient ourselves and make it clear who we are as New Yorkers, and who we are as Americans. First, as the point on rent regulation makes clear, there are times when we need an entity that is charged with the public good to step in and set ground rules. Although we all like to grouse about government from time to time, we know deep down that it was not that long ago when slumlords could charge a king’s ransom for dangerous and unsanitary housing conditions. It was not that long ago when workers could be forced to toil away in sweatshops for starvation wages. It was also not that long ago when health insurance companies were free to kick the most vulnerable off their rolls for a pre-existing condition, or that seniors were consigned to spending their retirement being slowly crushed by the weight of uncovered medical bills.
None of these problems just went away on their own. The invisible hand didn’t swoop down and sprinkle fairy dust on us. We solved them by coming together with common purpose and the determination that we are all made more free, not less, through our collective actions. For even the brightest and most capable men and women were not conjured up fully formed from nothing – they, like all of us, had help along the way. Unlike some would have you believe, we did not create government for the sake of having government. As our former governor Mario Cuomo was fond of saying, “we believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need.” So when the forces of regression spin their yarns about getting “government” off our backs, or making America “great” again, never forget what that means in practice.
As New Yorkers, we know that government is not the enemy of liberty. Only corrupt and ineffective government is. If we cannot rely on the federal government to remember this, however, then the city government must step up that much more. As Mayor De Blasio said, New York will remain a sanctuary city, regardless of the stance that the Trump administration takes. We won’t allow the IDNYC program to be used to identify and expose anyone’s immigration status. And if the White House says that it will profile our Muslim neighbors, register them in a database – or even launch a cruel and capricious attempt to ban them from our soil – New York will stand and say that we will not comply with bigotry and prejudice. We will resist!
This city is welcome to everyone, regardless of where they come from or how they got here. It is welcome to everyone, regardless of their orientation or gender identity – there will never be a bathroom bill in New York City. It is welcome to everyone, no matter what religion they practice, or if they practice no religion at all. New York will be the World’s City as surely as Queens is the World’s Borough. Anyone may call it home.
And these aren’t just platitudes. We all live in a prime example of how to make it work. Astoria is a gorgeous mosaic that contains nearly every class, faith, or race under the sun. Although we may occasionally get on each other’s nerves, we will always be there for one another. We’re going to show that on Friday night when my colleagues and I host a rally in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors at Steinway Street and 25th Avenue at 5:00. I ask you to come out and stand with us – and demonstrate what it means to stand strong as a united community.
2016 was a complicated year, and the future ahead of us looks uncertain. But our community is looking better. I’m proud of the hard work we’ve done on that front and the successes we’ve had here in Astoria.
Our streets are cleaner. Our neighborhood is more beautiful. Our roads are safer. Our hospital is more modern. Our parks are better suited to serve our community. Our power is greener. Our air is cleaner. We have achieved so much in these three years and there is still so much more that I want to accomplish. With fortitude and determination, together, we can make those ideas a reality.
We might fear the uncertainty ahead on our national stage, but that darkness can be illuminated by our actions and our efforts here in Astoria, and so we must continue. Let’s continue together. Thank you very much.