Candidates for the District 6 City Council seat gathered at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus for a debate. From left: Bill Raudenbush, David Owens, Helen Rosenthal, Cary Goodman and Mel Wymore. Photo: Michael Garofalo
BY MIKE GAROFALO
All five candidates seeking to represent the Upper West Side in the City Council faced off for the first time July 31 in a spirited public debate. Incumbent Helen Rosenthal was joined at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus by the four challengers seeking to unseat her this fall in her reelection bid, Cary Goodman, David Owens, Bill Raudenbush and Mel Wymore, for a discussion on land use and quality of life in Council District 6.
There was broad agreement among the candidates on many of the topics discussed — all are opposed to overdevelopment, for helping small businesses, and in favor of affordable housing — but they differed over how to achieve those goals and, of course, who among them would best represent the community’s interests in City Hall. “The fact is, everyone is gonna stand up here and more or less tell you what you want to hear,” Raudenbush said. “The question is: who do you believe?”
Rosenthal touted her support of the zoning change initiatives designed to promote affordable housing during her first term, and said that she focuses on realistic “technical solutions” to problems. “The only solutions that count and are worth your time listening to are solutions that we can actually implement,” she said, adding, “There’s never gonna be a kumbaya moment when you’re dealing with difficult issues.”
Wymore, who lost narrowly to Rosenthal in the 2013 Democratic primary and, like Rosenthal, is a former chair of Community Board 7, said that he is focused on technical solutions, citing his work on zoning issues and community organizing against overdevelopment. “Helen says that it’s wishful thinking to think that we can reform land-use laws, but we made those laws in the first place, and the only reason it would be wishful thinking is if you feel beholden to real estate industry lobbyists,” he said.
Wymore and Rosenthal clashed over campaign contributions. In response to a question about money in politics, Wymore spoke of the importance of independence from the real estate industry and said that he had returned contribution from developers during his 2013 campaign.
Rosenthal countered, “It’s funny, the notion that you would return a donation from a developer. No developer has ever thought to donate to my campaign. That’s why I’ve never returned one.”
Wymore responded by referencing a $1,000 contribution Rosenthal received earlier this year from Dana Lowey, the CEO and president of the real estate firm Holliswood Development, along with other donations Rosenthal has accepted in the past from individuals with connections to the development industry.
“She’s not a high-rise luxury developer,” Rosenthal said of Lowey. Holliswood’s website says that the company is best known for “luxury conversions of multi-unit residential properties into single family mansions on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.”
Campaign finance records show that while Wymore returned contributions from several developers during the 2013 campaign, he received but did not return contributions from real estate developers Jeffrey Levine and Robert Quinlan. A Wymore spokesman said that the campaign attempted to return Levine’s contribution and said that the failure to return Quinlan’s donation was an error. Wymore said in a written statement, “While I regret that we missed this contribution, it doesn’t change my goals as a community advocate. If any developers donate to my 2017 campaign I will return those checks, and I remain proud of my 2013 team and the work they did on that campaign.”
Raudenbush, an information governance consultant who has worked on community efforts to block the American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center expansion plan and the planned high-rise development at 200 Amsterdam Ave., said that he would bring independence to the City Council, which he called “a wholly-owned subsidiary of the development business and the real estate industrial complex.” Raudenbush said he would champion a 500-foot height limit on new buildings on the Upper West Side, along with a proposal to block development plans that would cast new shadows on public parkland.
Goodman, a longtime Upper West Side resident and director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District, is another vocal opponent of the American Museum of Natural History’s planned Gilder Center expansion, which is in the environmental review process. Goodman repeatedly branded the plan as “toxic” for the surrounding environment.
Raudenbush said that he supports the museum’s mission, but said that any expansion should take place within the institution’s current footprint and not encroach upon the park. “We’re not anti-museum, we’re pro-park,” he said.
Owens, a longtime Upper West Side resident who founded and coaches the New York Grays Baseball Club, a youth team that seeks to use the sport as a vehicle to put children on track towards college, said he supports the expansion, but said that environmental studies and traffic mitigation need to be properly completed and added that he would like the museum’s plan to include jobs for local residents. “If we happen to lose some of the park, I know it’s not a very popular stance right here, but it’s going towards progress,” he said. Owens said that the district’s next City Council member needs to improve neighborhood engagement in civic life. “I think there’s a lack of communication from all constituents on the Upper West Side,” he said. “There’s 180,000 of us and only a few people are represented, it seems, or involved in the process.”
Wymore has concerns about the size of the expansion and its impacts on traffic and environmental sustainability and said that he would freeze public funding for the project pending additional public hearings and input.
Rosenthal supports the opportunity to expand the museum as a community resource and research venue, but says that the museum’s plan needs to do more to ease traffic congestion and ensure community safety during construction. She noted that politicians have allocated public resources to the museum for years. Her response was met with boos from some audience members.
The candidates were not the only ones who elicited strong responses from the audience. After the discussion of the Gilder Center, moderator Lesley Massiah-Arthur, associate vice president of government relations and urban affairs at Fordham, posed a question about whether Raudenbush and Goodman, who have focused heavily on the issue, would withdraw their candidacies if the other candidates adopted stances identical to their own in opposing the Gilder Center plan. The premise prompted a loud and persistent protest from some members of the crowd, who shouted over Massiah-Arthur as she repeated her question. Massiah-Arthur eventually moved on from the topic. Raudenbush said later, “I just want to be clear that I’m not a one-issue candidate. That’s a little ridiculous.”
The debate, sponsored by Fordham, Landmark West, and the Historic Districts Council's League of Preservation Voters, was the second in the span of a week for the Democratic candidates, who met four days earlier to record a primary debate that will air on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in mid-August.
In the primary debate, Rosenthal and Goodman had a contentious exchange over a sign posted near the entrance to Rosenthal’s district office asking constituents with bedbugs not to enter. Goodman said, that the sign “sends a message about people who are living in more dire circumstances,” adding that it signals “a certain level of disgust with who they are.”
In her rebuttal to Goodman’s comments, Rosenthal said, “I found it incredibly offensive when Dr. Goodman ascribed bedbugs to a certain class of people,” adding that bedbugs are a “serious issue not to be made light of” and impact residents across the economic spectrum. Rosenthal said that her office has required fumigation in the past due to bedbug infestations and that she wants to assure residents that they won’t bring the insects back to their homes after visiting her office.
Goodman countered that he has “never come across anything as offensive as this sign,” and said that he would conduct business differently.
Rosenthal will face fellow Democrats Goodman and Wymore in the Sept. 12 primary election. The winner of the Democratic nomination will face independent candidates Owens and Raudenbush in the Nov. 7 general election.