UWS council race heats up

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District 6 hopefuls face off in Democratic primary debate


  • At the Democratic debate (left to right): Council member Helen Rosenthal, Cary Goodman and Mel Wymore. Photo: Michael Garofalo

The three Democratic candidates seeking to represent the Upper West Side in the city council faced off in the first primary debate of the 2017 campaign season Thursday morning. Incumbent Helen Rosenthal joined challengers Cary Goodman and Mel Wymore at Manhattan Neighborhood Network studios on West 59th Street for a wide-ranging discussion on the issues facing Council District 6.

The three candidates will compete for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the Sept. 12 primary election, with the winner moving on to the Nov. 7 general election. Two other candidates, Bill Raudenbush and David Owens, have launched independent bids for the seat.

The debate was sponsored by Manhattan Neighborhood Network in partnership with the League of Women Voters of New York, Gotham Gazette and Amsterdam News, and will air on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in mid-August. Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, moderated the forum and posed questions on topics including schools, affordable housing and real estate development.

Rosenthal identified affordable housing as the Upper West Side’s most pressing issue and said that she was proud to have supported the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability zoning change initiatives during her first term. “We need to do everything we can to preserve affordable housing and to build new affordable housing,” she said.

Wymore, who lost narrowly to Rosenthal in the 2013 Democratic primary and, like Rosenthal, is a former chair of Community Board 7, said that inclusion is a key plank of his campaign platform, which places focus on “schools, shops and seniors.” “Unregulated development continues to come into our community and we don’t get anything back out of it,” he said. “We need to have land use reform that gives us public review so that we can really defend affordable housing in our district for our seniors and our low-income families, so that our local shops can stay in business and our schools have enough space for every child to get the attention that they need.”

Goodman, a longtime Upper West Side resident and director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District, is a vocal opponent of the American Museum of Natural History’s planned Gilder Center expansion, which is currently in the environmental review process and calls for a new museum building that would stand in a portion of what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park. Goodman repeatedly branded the plan as “toxic” for the surrounding environment and criticized Rosenthal for her role in allocating city funds to the project, which he described as “public money used for a private institution for the purpose of cutting down public park land.” Goodman’s concerns include the sustainability of the design, the potential for increased traffic congestion near the new building, and the loss of trees and open space in the park.

Rosenthal called Goodman’s statements on the Gilder Center “100 percent misleading,” noting that the new building will occupy a quarter-acre of the ten-acre park. Rosenthal supports the opportunity to expand the museum as a community resource and research venue, but said that the museum needs to do more to ease traffic congestion and ensure community safety during construction. “The community feedback that I’ve gotten so far is that we’ve addressed some of the neighborhood concerns, but really not all of them,” she said, adding that she would “keep the museum’s feet to the fire.”

Wymore said that the museum “is a world class institution that does need to stay competitive,” but said that all impacts on the community need to be mitigated.

At one point, Rosenthal and Goodman clashed 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 affect 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.

On the issue of affordable housing, Goodman called for expanded eligibility requirements, while Wymore criticized the city council for not doing enough to curb the development of supertall buildings or counter the influence of the real estate industry. “It’s not about giving tax breaks to billionaires so they’ll give us a few bits of affordable housing,” Wymore said. “It’s about making sure our tax code is fair and making sure our land use reform rebalances the playing field so that real estate and special interests don’t always have the advantage.”

Rosenthal twice said the she was focused on “facts, and not empty promises,” and said that she has worked in the city council to enact solutions to what she described as an affordable housing crisis. “Let’s be clear,” she said. “When [real estate developer] Gary Barnett builds at 96th and Broadway, he will have two choices. He can build as high as he’s allowed to, or, because of [Zoning for Quality and Affordability], he’ll be able to build two stories more and then he must build affordable housing.”

Rosenthal, Goodman, and Wymore will share a debate stage again next week, along with independent council hopefuls Raudenbush and Owens, at a public forum on preservation and land use Monday July 31 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus.

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