Gigi Li believes that leadership consists of listening, as much as talking. “Smart plans are voter-informed and voter-driven,” she says. “Most of my agenda has come from speaking to constituents on the street and at their doors.” As an example, Ms. Li cites her plan to reform the Battery Park City Authority — with at least three board seats set aside for residents, a new focus on traffic and pedestrian safety, a program to mitigate the impacts of tourism, and a community-led process for redesigning South End Avenue. “That came from talking to residents,” she says.
Ms. Li has also heard from Lower Manhattan residents, “the frustration that nothing seems to be changing. They’re losing faith in the possibility that their voices will be heard.”
Ms. Li, who has the support of City Council member Margaret Chin, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Manhattan Youth executive director Bob Townley, says she acquired the skills that will make her an effective Assembly member while serving as chair of Community Board 3 (CB3), which covers Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “That taught me the importance of relationships and advocacy,” say Ms. Li, who in 2012 became the first Asian-American in New York City history to be elected chair of a Community Board. She stepped down in June of this year, after drafting new term-limits regulations, an accomplishment she hopes to replicate in Albany, where, she says, “elected officials need to be held accountable, and limiting their time in office is one way of making this happen.
“Because community boards are advisory,” she recalls, “I learned to how get a seat at the table and participate in decisions on projects that mattered.” She cites the planned development of Essex Crossing on the Lower East Side as a case in point. “Mayors had been trying to get a plan approved there for 30 years,” she recalls. “But we were able to come up with vision that everybody could live with, including a park, a movie theater, and 500 apartments that will have affordability protection in perpetuity, with 100 of those set aside for seniors. And these units are spread equally across all of the buildings. Plus, we got assurances that former tenants would be allowed to return.”
“Those were all wins,” she says of Essex Crossing. “But the fight that’s still going on is the push to get a new school built as part of that project.” She sees the process that gave birth to Essex Crossing as a model for how to manage growth elsewhere in Lower Manhattan. “The strategy is to create a menu of goals, knowing we won’t get everything. But being ready to seize the opportunity when decisions are made.”
As chair of CB3, she also earned a reputation for defending affordable housing (several tenant organizations have endorsed her) and pushing for educational services. These are both issues she hopes to take up as a new member of the Assembly. “These two sets of issues span the entirety of Lower Manhattan,” she says. “Affordability protections at Gateway Plaza expire in 2020, but there’s not one neighborhood in this district that isn’t facing challenges in these areas. So we need legislation that requires all new developments to have a substantial component of affordable housing. And we need legal triggers that automatically create new schools when local development exceeds certain thresholds. We have to make it possible for families who have lived in this area, in many cases for decades, to remain here.”
Ms. Li, who has has served as executive director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition (a non-profit that supports services for children) since 2012, sees the potential for progress on issues large and small. “We need to expand the universal pre-kindergarten program from four-year-olds, to include three-year-olds,” she says. “But at the same time, we need to standardize arbitrary regulations requiring non-profits that operate after-school programs to comply with higher safety standards than the schools themselves. This does no good, and just becomes an excuse for meaningless fines that harm these organizations.”
She plans, as freshman member of the Assembly, “to bring resources to Lower Manhattan by clearly articulating needs here. Politics is the art of unlikely partnerships. My approach will be to build coalitions, based on geography and substantive issues. I’m a consensus builder with a concrete track record. I’m ready to lead.”