District 22

Costa Constantinides

Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside

2019 State of the District Address

Council Member Costa Constantinides 
State of the District Address
P.S. 2 — The Alfred Zimberg School, January 31
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Before I begin I want to thank Principal Goldman and everyone here at PS 2 for hosting us tonight. I also want to thank our City Council Queens Delegation Chair the Koz, Karen Koslowitz. It’s in working together with my colleagues in government that I’m able to deliver real results for our community, like getting rid of the trailers that have sat out in your schoolyard for far too long, and being able to bring a million dollars worth of new technology to this school and other schools every year.

In many ways, this year has been marked by transition. We inaugurated a new Council Speaker, my good friend Corey Johnson, who has reinvigorated our body and reasserted its role as a co-equal branch of government. We welcomed a new class of young people with new perspectives to the ranks of public service, and we paid our respects to the memories of our colleagues we had lost. We saw how crude rhetoric that foments hatred and divisiveness invariably leads to tragic and unspeakable acts, but we also saw Americans from all walks of life rise up to reject vile bigotry and show that we are a nation of laws, where “liberty and justice for all” lives on in word AND deed. We saw the fingerprints of humanity’s role in climate change in an ever greater number of natural disasters around the world, but we also saw that, more and more, people are coming to understand the scope and gravity of the threat we face. The picture of the stark choices that lie ahead begin to emerge – do we take the initiative and build a more just and sustainable future, or do we grasp in vain at some romanticized vision of the past?

Here in Queens, we have no intention of limiting ourselves to the narrow, dystopian vision our most infamous native son seems to inhabit. Perhaps if he’d ever bothered to leave his gilded tower on Fifth Avenue and walked the streets of Astoria, Jackson Heights, Bayside, Fresh Meadows, or any one of the dozens of unique neighborhoods in our great borough, he’d see the power of building institutions and public works that bring people together instead of driving them apart. We don’t denigrate our public servants here in New York City and we don’t allow our parks to become trash heaps. We empower dedicated New Yorkers to make our communities better, one school, street, or park at a time. Let me tell you about what we’ve been able to accomplish this year.

First, I am proud to report that I have continued to invest heavily in renovating or restoring all of the parks in our district. Just this past November, we broke ground on the first phase of the Astoria Park anchor project, which will see an 11.3 million dollar upgrade to the track and field. Generations of Astorians once played baseball and football in that same area, but a previous renovation removed the play area for a plain grass field marked with random, oddly placed trees. Now, for the first time in several decades, there will be a real athletic field in the center of the track where people can come to play soccer or other sports. Additionally, the track itself will be renovated and given a new, eight-lane, all-weather rubberized surface.

And this is just the first phase of the anchor park program. Phase 2, which is scheduled to begin later this year, will see Charybdis Playground expanded, new picnic and gaming tables added, and the childrens’ spray shower area redone. The Parks Department has done an outstanding job on the Anchor Park program, and I want to thank outgoing Commissioner Dottie Lewandowski and her staff for all their hard work on making one of the finest parks in New York City a true jewel of our neighborhood.

Astoria Park may have been the biggest parks project underway this past year, but it was by no means the only one. Last October we also cut the ribbon on the newly renovated and rechristened Louis C. Moser Playground. This 1.87 million dollar renovation provided new sitting areas, play equipment, swings, and an updated drainage system.

Finally, we also cut the ribbon on a 7.9 million dollar overhaul of Astoria Heights Playground that not only added new play equipment and a spray shower area, but also built in a series of green infrastructure systems that will help divert the rain from the sewers and storm drains.

Parks are a key part of any community’s quality of life. Probably the most basic measure of our quality of life in western Queens, however, is the idea that we can go to bed at night at peace, knowing that we can stay in the neighborhoods we hold dear. While change is inevitable, it cannot be disruptive change that uproots the lives of our families, friends, and neighbors. That’s why I fight so hard to slow down the effects of climate change, it’s why I’ve stood up with my colleagues in government to ask serious questions about a bad Amazon deal, and it’s why I made it a priority in last year’s State of the District address to build 500 units of senior affordable housing before my time in this office is through.

Well, I’m proud to report that within a year we already have commitments to build half of those 500 units. It wasn’t guaranteed that we’d make it this far this fast – we had to cut through some serious red tape to get here – but we didn’t give in. Thanks to Catholic Charities, and especially to my tenacious friend, Speaker Corey Johnson, who was able to get 500 million dollars in this year’s budget for senior housing citywide, we’ll be getting a new fully funded senior development at 31st Street and Broadway. We’re making sure that more Queens residents will be able to enter their golden years knowing that they don’t have to fear losing the neighborhoods they’ve called home.

Those neighborhoods should also remain livable, but the MTA’s missteps have caused ripple effects that our communities have had to clean up. Even when the 30th Avenue station reopened in late June, the business corridor spent most of the preceding year struggling with the lingering effects of the closure. When the street was neglected economically, it gradually became neglected in other ways as well, and litter began to pile up. That’s why I fought to secure another 2.4 million dollars in the citywide budget for street cleaning so that, this year, I could include another 290,000 dollars for our local street sweeping, graffiti removal operations, and beautification along 30th Avenue.

Another key element to basic livability is the ability to actually get around. Unfortunately, there’s been more bad news than good over the past few years, as subway delays, bus cuts, and mounting concerns with the underlying infrastructure and how it’s maintained continue to stack up. Raise your hand – how many of you have dealt with a train delay in the last month? It’s not just you! I know how you feel! The transit system is the lifeblood of our city. Period. Keeping it in working order has to be a top priority. And while it’s true that the MTA is a state agency, that hasn’t kept the Council from acting to keep our subways and busses accessible to all as well as in a state of good repair. First, the Council pushed the de Blasio Administration to add 106 million dollars to the budget for the fair fares program, giving impoverished New Yorkers half fare MetroCards. We’re now in the opening stages of rolling out the program to the most in need and we’ll be working closely with the administration in the coming months to ensure that every New Yorker eligible for this program gets a MetroCard. No one benefits when the most vulnerable are trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Secondly, the Council also allocated 418 million dollars in the city’s budget for subway upgrades, signal fixes, and other needed maintenance. While I do agree with the mayor that, ultimately, the state needs to step up and take the lead in getting the funding needed – city residents and business already contribute 70 percent of MTA revenue through taxes and fares – it was also important that the city shows a commitment to keeping our subways running. I’m looking forward to working with my new colleague in government, lifelong straphanger and now State Senator Jessica Ramos, to forge a better dynamic between the city and the state on how to support mass transit in New York. And if, as some have suggested, it means starting a conversation on returning control of the subways to New York City, then that is a conversation we need to have now.    

It’s also important for western Queens as a whole that our hospital is stocked with state-of-the-art equipment. Thanks to the help of the Queens Delegation in the Council, led by the unstoppable Karen Koslowitz, we secured $450,000 for three ultrasound units and cardiac monitoring systems at Mt. Sinai Queens Hospital. This brings the total Council investment in 5 years to over 7.5 million dollars, ensuring that our Queens community has world-class health care and that residents do not have to leave the borough to receive the care that they need.

Investing in our children, however, may be the most important action that we as a city can take. First, we were able to add $125 million for Fair Student Funding. Under this program, principals are directly given spending authority, so our local schools have the ability to determine their own needs. PS 2, for instance, received an additional 81,000 dollars in funding.

Secondly, my Science 2050 Initiative continues to deliver for our students. This year six more schools, Long Island City HS, PS 171, PS 85, Q300, and the Young Women’s Leadership School received funding for hydroponic science labs, where plants and equipment will be installed in classrooms that use water and other mediums for plant growth. These labs provide hands-on education to students in many subjects including biology, agriculture, technology, and nutrition. IS 141 will receive a new stem lab to educate students in science, technology, engineering and math. Don’t worry Principal Goldman, I haven’t forgotten PS 2. In this upcoming budget, we will provide funding for you and the remaining five schools in the district so all schools will have these amazing labs by the fall of 2020! P.S. 84 will also receive a newly renovated school yard. Future generations will have a safe and meaningful place to play thanks to our partnership with the Borough President and the Trust for Public Land.

Finally, I was tremendously proud to stand with the School Construction Authority yesterday to announce that, thanks to a partnership between myself, Speaker Johnson, Borough President Melinda Katz, and the administration, six local schools will get solar panels on their rooftops over the next two years. These solar panel installations are critical for several reasons. One is that they will save the school money in the long run. The U.S. Department of Energy says keeping the lights on and our children warm are the second biggest expense for K-12 schools. Making this investment means that more of the schools’ operating budgets can go to books, teachers, and extracurricular activities instead of the electric bill. It’s simply unacceptable that we live in a time when schools have to hold bake sales to pay for books, and teachers have to buy their classroom supplies with their own already stretched out paychecks. Anything we can do to ease that burden is a no-brainer for me. Installing these solar panels also gives children an opportunity to see and experience renewable technology themselves. It’s one thing to read about a solar panel in a book, but it’s a whole different thing to see one on your school’s roof and that is what’s going to engage our children and get them even more excited about a green future.
Now… as for PS 2, I have a plan for this school that goes beyond solar panels alone. I want to see PS 2 become the first school in New York City to be redesigned as a carbon neutral building that will include renewable electric, heating, and cooling systems. I want PS 2 to be the symbol of our borough’s resiliency – of a GREENER QUEENS. I want people from around the country, and from around the world, to see PS 2 and know that it is possible to move to a clean energy future without tearing down all that came before. It wasn’t fossil fuels that made America great – it was ingenuity and the pioneer spirit.

We’re not going to sit back and let the water come to us. We can’t. Queens – and the world – has too much at stake. We are the largest borough, which also means we will be the most impacted by the rapidly approaching effects of climate change. Today we count the blue whale, the white rhino, and the red panda amongst the endangered. If we don’t act, tomorrow it will be the New Yorker.

That’s why I’m fighting to get Intro. 1253 passed this year in the Council. Just as former President Obama had his Clean Power Plan, I’ve got my Clean Tower Plan. This bill will have large buildings conduct the kinds of energy efficiency upgrades that I want to bring to PS 2. It will also have financial incentives so that building owners don’t have to take an up-front hit they can’t afford. If we get this right, it will be the largest single climate change-fighting policy that any city has EVER done, AND it will help bolster the market for the green jobs of the future. As many as 20,000 people across the state are estimated to work in just solar energy within the next two years, and there is no reason New York City can’t have the lion’s share of those jobs.

We need to do everything we can to ensure that New York remains a place we can all call home. The challenges we face have been steadily building over a number of decades. Unfortunately, for much of that time, we’ve had one hand tied behind our backs by Albany. For far too long, our ability to govern our own affairs here in the city has been stifled by politicians who don’t believe that we can be trusted to govern ourselves, and that there’s simply nothing wrong with making the greatest city in the world come, hat in hand, to beg for a chance at controlling its own destiny. Last November, however, a blue wave swept across America and crested right here in the Empire State. Now, thanks in part to our young, progressive leaders like newly minted Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, Jessica Ramos, and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, we are in a position to make sweeping changes that will benefit countless New Yorkers. Now I know we’ve got a heavy hitting lineup (anyone who knows me knows how much I love a good baseball metaphor) and we’ve already seen some great homeruns in terms of passing voting reform, the Jose Peralta Memorial DREAM Act, and finally codifying Roe v. Wade. The grand slam, however, has to be fixing our housing laws.

Two years ago, in my 2017 state of the district, I called for an end to vacancy decontrol, where landlords can take apartments out of rent regulation by exploiting loopholes in the system. With our newly empowered progressive state legislature, fixing this inequity should now be the floor of our ambitions, not the ceiling. When the rent laws come up for renewal later this year, we shouldn’t just talk about merely keeping the status quo. We need to talk about giving New York City control of its own destiny by repealing the Urstadt Law, which blocks the city from setting its own rules on rent control. WE’RE IN A HOUSING CRISIS HERE! Every time a landlord pushes a tenant out so that they can legally hike the rent by 20 percent, every time they make some minimal repair to the building that can legally be converted into a permanent rent increase, and every time a tenant is slammed with a sudden hike euphemistically called “preferential rent,” it leaves us all worse off. Giving New York City say over its own affairs means putting real tenant protections in place. We can end this vicious cycle, preserve our neighborhoods, and make them greener in a way that doesn’t pit rent hikes against our sustainability goals. And we can create incentives for installing green technology by making fair reforms to our broken property tax system.

Making our buildings greener and more sustainable is, in the long run, its own reward – but if we get it right, energy efficiency will allow us to have a conversation about how to literally take back western Queens. One of the main reasons that I have worked so fervently to make New York City a more sustainable and environmentally friendly place is so that we can begin to envision a future where we will no longer need the power plants that loom over our neighborhoods. The ‘Astoria Borealis’ literally shined a spotlight on this point last month. The power infrastructure that dominates northern Astoria is a relic from when the area was sparsely populated and has no place in our community today. That’s why I will be taking several steps to reclaim our waterfront.

First, I have introduced a bill to direct the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to study how we can begin to phase out our fossil fuel-based power plants and replace them with renewable sources, such as solar or wind, tied to large-scale batteries. Up until recently, these renewables have been limited by the simple fact that, well, it’s not always sunny or windy. In the last several years, however, utilities across the country have begun to invest in batteries large enough to store power generated by power plants. California’s main utility put together plans to install batteries that can store enough energy to potentially power well over two million homes. Xcel Energy, one of the largest power producers in the country with customers in eight states, has also pledged to go carbon-free by 2050. This is not some far-flung dream of a distant future. This is within our grasp now, and we need to begin the transition away from these plants now. Too much is at stake to wait around any longer.

But where would this new infrastructure go? There may be an answer in an often forgotten part of our district. With the prison on Riker’s Island closing in the next 5 to 10 years, the city will soon have 400 acres of space open for redevelopment. We will have a unique opportunity to solve several different environmental problems that have bedeviled us for decades. Several months ago, my office began a collaboration with the CUNY Law School Center for Urban Environmental Reform to determine the best use of the space from an environmental perspective. Astoria resident and professor Rebecca Bratspies demonstrated that, based off projections from the Lippmann Commission’s report on Riker’s Island, renewables installed on the island could be used to replace most, if not all, of the plants that have been built in the city in the last two decades. What’s more, this should also leave us plenty of space to build a new, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility that would allow us to potentially retire several older sewage treatment plants in north Queens and the Bronx.

It’s not often that you hear someone get excited about sewage treatment. Trust me, this is pretty unusual even for me. But the opportunity we have before us is to reclaim the waterfront that has been off limits for generations. With this plan, we can look to a future where we may be able to return much of this shoreline to the people of Queens. Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. This won’t happen in the next year, the next five, or even the next 10 years. It is, however, a fully achievable goal that the city can set for itself. In my opinion it’s the most sensible goal to set, as the only new runway we need here in Queens is a runway to renewables! And over the next generation, what began as a means to right past wrongs will blossom into a showpiece for the rest of the world as to how a great city can overcome the challenges of adapting to climate change while providing essential services and great recreational spaces to its residents.

There’s so much we can do to make our city more sustainable, and I’m proud that we’re fighting to pass the single most consequential building standard that any city has ever done. But we can’t fully claim the sustainability mantle unless we make sure our city’s transportation sector is as green as possible as well. Part of this greening is ensuring that the streets are kept clear for all uses, and not just cars. If the day to day experience of a major thoroughfare is chaotic or haphazard, it limits its ability to contribute to a multimodal transportation network. This brings me to Astoria Boulevard.

Since Astoria’s founding in the 1830s, the boulevard that bears its name has been the main connection to the rest of the borough. Even after the construction of the Triborough Bridge and the Grand Central Parkway tore out a section of the adjacent community, Astoria Boulevard still served as a main arterial of western Queens. Ask anyone who needs to travel along the stretch, however, and they will tell you without hesitating that it’s not exactly something they look forward to. (There’s a good chance some choice and unrepeatable four-letter words will be used to describe it.) And could you blame them? For far too long we’ve simply come to accept this impenetrable thicket of traffic as inevitable and natural when that is anything but the case. I believe that it’s time to take a serious look at overhauling Astoria Boulevard from the Triboro Bridge to Citi Field. That’s why I call on DOT to conduct a study that will seek a holistic approach that takes into account all forms of transportation.

And this should take into account other developments around the community to see what works best on which street. Recently, DOT proposed building a dedicated bike lane along the northern edges of our district and through to Flushing Meadows. If they think that’s the best way to go I will support it, but I also think that we should at least consider FIXING Astoria Boulevard as well. We may agree to disagree here. But the truth is there are some who absolutely must use a car and others might be able to bike to work some days. No one should have to apologize for their preferred method. Yet our grid system has for too long stymied a varied transit network in favor of the car — and the car alone. Allowing that to continue, in 2019, is basically trying to shove a few thousand square pegs through a few round holes. Creating complete streets is so important because it gives more options that are better and safer for everyone. And don’t take me word for it: Studies of the changes along 8th Avenue, Columbus Avenue, and Prospect Park West have shown improvements in traffic flow, commute time, and reduced injuries to cyclists and drivers. Cities from Minneapolis to London have found the same thing. It may not work on every street, but on the right street a bike lane can help speed things up for everyone.

Part of building a better Astoria Boulevard also means building a better experience for those who live and work along it. Completed in 1967, the current home of the 114th Precinct allowed the police to move out of their previous home – a building that was so old that it still bore the seal of the Long Island City Police Department. While the current precinct house has been functional for the past several decades, it is beginning to show its age. Sometimes the basement floods when it rains. Parking for police vehicles is heavily outweighed by the limited number of spaces. We have to account for the equal or greater need for pedestrian walkways and cycling safety. This has created a traffic nightmare around Astoria Boulevard and 35th street. My office has fielded complaints about this for years, and, trust me, we hear you. We cannot put the need for parking ahead of the need to keep our streets livable. It’s time we explore building a new 114th Precinct that gives the brave men and women of the NYPD the space they need to operate at their best. Not only will this allow us to replace an aging facility, it creates the opportunity to build a multi-level parking garage for the precinct as well — freeing up the street and sidewalk space.

Let’s be clear. I believe that we need balanced streets that allow access for all and are safe for all. This isn’t just limited to when a car, bike, or pedestrian is in motion, however. We need parking equity as well. Currently, the city suspends parking meters on Sundays, in part because we recognize that we as a city do not want to make people pay to pray. When a communal religious service is scheduled, the last thing we want is for New Yorkers to be distracted from their spiritual obligations by having to keep an eye on the meter. It’s simply not fair, however, to have this system unofficially exist for one religion to the exclusion of all others. That’s why I soon introduce a bill that directs DOT to determine, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, whether parking meters should be suspended for religious services in the immediate area. The seeds of religious tolerance and mutual interfaith respect were cultivated here in Queens more than 350 years ago, and our borough is still home to more cultures, languages, and religious traditions than almost anywhere else in the world. Let’s make sure that any reasonable accommodations to one faith community are available to all communities.

We take pride in our city and our borough being so welcoming to all who seek a space of their own. Indeed, it was from New York City, not long after the British evacuated and General Washington marched triumphantly down Broadway, that he declared that “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.” There might be times where we jostle or bump heads with our neighbors, but ultimately we know that they are our neighbors and that our community is strengthened by having them there. But the wonderful thing about our neighborhoods is that they aren’t just bastions of ethnic or religious diversity, but of cultural diversity as well. Kaufman Astoria Studios, arguably Hollywood before Hollywood, sits at the heart of a pulsating and radiant network of creative spirit. In the fall, we welcomed RIOULT to Astoria — bringing one of the city’s top dance companies to western Queens.

And while we celebrate the artistic talent flocking to our borough, we also need to nurture the ones who grew up here. As space reaches ever higher premiums, we need to be creative in how we preserve our local performing arts. That’s why I am working to site not one, but two separate theater spaces for groups like the Astoria Performing Arts Center that will be accessible to all.

With a new space, we will have a permanent home for great plays and musicals, for the wonderful senior stars program, and for educational and after-school programs for kids. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone say that taking a drama class helped them gain confidence in themselves, and helped them learn how to project their voices and present themselves to the world. Yes, it’s important we use our hydroponic labs, new technology and other STEM curriculum for children’s logic and analytical reasoning to be second nature. There must also be room for our children to have places where they can let their imaginations run free, however, and to experience the breadth of humanity as only Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Lorraine Hansberry could tell it. We will ensure the arts have a secure future in western Queens, and that future generations of New Yorkers will have a place where they can tell their stories.

After all, it’s in our stories, and how we tell them, that determines how we see ourselves, and how we see where we’ve been, and how we see where we’re going. It’s in the telling that we reveal who we are. Tonight, I’ve told you a story of the challenges that Queens faces, of the over 40,000 cars that pass over the Queens section of the Triborough bridge every day, tying up our streets and emitting dirty exhaust. I’ve told you of the power plants that send thick white plumes of smoke filled with the worst toxins for our lungs into the air and of the overtaxed infrastructure sends sewage into the same waterways we want to someday kayak in — just a few yards from where our children play baseball.

Queens is on the front lines of climate change along with so many other coastal areas of our city. All of the work we’re setting out to accomplish in 2019 will make this a cleaner, safer, and greener Queens. This resonates through our plans to rebuild the parks in our district, provide seniors with appropriate housing they can afford, powering out already overburdened schools, and reimagining our beleaguered transit infrastructure.

The story of our district has always been about new ideas and bold decisions. We are home to one of the world’s most innovative bridges and sprawling parks because our government once saw the opportunity to act — and did so. This district has always welcomed new people. We are home to the Greek restaurant owners, the Nepali store owners, and the coders from the midwest. Each of us brings new ideas, our own chapters, to the story of our neighborhood. Together, we have stitched them into something that makes us proud to say: “I’m from Astoria,” or “I’m from East Elmhurst,” or “I’m from Jackson Heights.”    The book hasn’t ended, and we’ve got so much story left to tell. Together, we will ensure that the next chapter of our district and our borough tells the story of how we did not shrink back from unprecedented challenges. Instead, it will tell how we stood firm in the face of adversity and continued to lay the foundation upon which a greener, fairer, and more sustainable Queens will be built. Thank you.