At its December 7 board meeting, the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) for the first time allowed members of the public to comment on its proceedings. After approximately 50 minutes of deliberation about contracts and finances, Authority chair Dennis Mehiel, said, “now we have a period of public comment,” and asked the first speaker, Jeanette Wyman, “what is your subject?”
Ms. Wyman answered, “there’s a recommendation from the Authority about the cul-de-sac on South End Avenue.” This was a reference to the BPCA’s ongoing study of how to revamp South End Avenue. Several of the scenarios circulated publicly by the Authority envision converting the dead end at the bottom of South End Avenue (between West Thames Street and South Cove) into a “shared street,” meaning that it is periodically closed to traffic and used for recreation. The National Association of City Transportation Officials defines a shared street as one that can be closed to, “function foremost as a public space for recreation, socializing, and leisure.”
“I live in one of those buildings,” Ms. Wyman continued. “There are two schools there. There are deliveries that come all the time. I live in a cul-de-sac for a reason — because it’s beautiful and it’s nice. We don’t need a pedestrian plaza paved there to accommodate tourists. Tourists have North Cove Marina; they have Pier A; they have Hudson River Park. They have enough open space to hang out and do what they want. I don’t believe that you need to come in and pave a pedestrian plaza where you have two residential buildings, the Cove Club and the Regatta.”
“This idea makes no sense,” she added. “It’s a residential neighborhood. We’d like to keep it that way. Additionally, we’d have loss of parking, which residents who have vehicles do rely on…” At this point, a timer sounded, indicating that the two minutes allotted for each speaker had elapsed. Ms. Wyman pushed ahead, “I have a list here, so if I go over…”
Mr. Mehiel interjected, “if you have a list, we’d be happy to put it into the record, if you leave it with us in writing. Whatever your allocated time is, you’re welcome to use it as you see fit.”
Ms. Wyman retorted, “you think two minutes are appropriate to address this?”
Mr. Mehiel replied, “we put a protocol in place and we’re going to have to stay with it. And we’ll be happy to take all of your comments in writing, and take them under advisement. But what we don’t want to do is change this public-comment protocol. This is an experiment. We’re trying it out. And I think it’s important that we stay with protocol.”
Ms. Wyman insisted, “so for the future, maybe you should extend it to five minutes, out of respect to the people who actually pay to live here.”
Mr. Mehiel answered, “we’re happy to have the suggestion, but if you have additional comment on this subject at this time, you need to present it in writing.”
When Ms. Wyman attempted to continue speaking, Mr. Mehiel turned to Authority staff, frustration evident in his voice, and said, “here we are. This is the first public comment, the first meeting, and we’re in a debate about the protocol.” He then turned back to Ms. Wyman and said, “I’m going to ask you to please abide by the two minutes.”
Before sitting down, Ms. Wyman said, “two minutes is not enough.”
The next speaker was Tammy Meltzer, a resident of Gateway Plaza and a member of Community Board 1 (CB1). She began by saying, “I want to personally say thank you for a more transparent process and a shift in direction toward partnering with the community,” adding that, “the newly formed working group for bicycling safety on the Esplanade is a great example of this.” This was a reference to a panel, comprised partly of Battery Park City residents, recently convened by the Authority to formulate recommendations about managing bicycle traffic along the community’s waterfront.
“I am encouraged, and hope to see a shift to bring community back as partners through socratic dialogue in many projects,” Ms. Meltzer continued. “I urge you to ensure that the previously announced meetings to be held with the City’s Department of Transportation regarding the redesign of South End Avenue include the community board as a partner.”
“We look forward to being considered a collaborator and asset in the process,” she added. “Engaging the community board in dialog in the conceptualization of projects is the way to rebuild our relationship, return to a more open process, and as the past has shown, yield more information than any survey can.” This was a reference to a pair of surveys taken by the BPCA, to help it formulate options for the redesigns of South End Avenue and Wagner Park. Both surveys, which garnered responses from fewer than 500 residents. These surveys have been criticized by some community leaders as too narrow a sample.
“Our interests are in line with yours to improve the quality of life in our neighborhood, and our collaboration will make all of the steps in the process stronger,” Ms. Meltzer concluded.
She was followed by Justine Cuccia, a public member of CB1 and one of the founders of the grassroots organization, Democracy for Battery Park City, which seeks a greater voice for neighborhood residents in BPCA decisions by (among other proposals) advocating that residents be appointed to the BPCA’s board. (Currently, only one seat on the Authority’s seven-member board is held by a resident.)
Ms. Cuccia began, “first, I want to say ‘thank you’ for recent positive decisions, such as allowing comment, the working groups on bike safety and senior programming, and about the South End Avenue arcades.” (This was a reference to the Authority’s October decision to drop from its list of options for upgrades to South End Avenue the possibility of creating new retail space by filling in the pedestrian arcades that line the street.) Ms. Cuccia then urged the Authority to, “create other working groups to focus on more important topics, like South End Avenue, Wagner Park, resiliency, affordability, and more.”
She added that, “while the governor appoints members to this board, we all know that he consults with the Authority staff and current board members about finding qualified residents and candidates. There is no shortage of qualified people living here in Battery Park City right now. So please urge the governor and his staff to consider this pool as he seeks to fill,” the two seats on the Authority’s board that are currently empty.
Ms. Cuccia also asked, “please work with us on the comprehensive solution for the ground lease in Battery Park City, both for renters and condo owners. Only by extending the lease past its current end-date in 2069 and rolling back ground rent payments, rather than merely reducing future increases, will we be able to save Battery Park City as a middle-class residential district. But, unless we make both of these things happen, the people who made Battery Park City a success, the middle class, will be forced out.”
Ms. Cuccia concluded by thanking the Authority’s staff and Mr. Mehiel, “for your efforts to save St. Josephs’s Chapel.” (This Catholic house of worship, located in Gateway Plaza, is in danger of being forced to shut down when its current lease ends in 2019.)
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer concluded the public comment session by saying, “public comment provides transparency, but also an opportunity for the board to see and know that residents have great ideas. I hope you continue this valuable experiment.”
Mr. Mehiel responded, “please rest assured that we listened and will take it under advisement in the process as we try to figure stuff out.”
(Editor’s Note: Ms. Cuccia is related to the reporter who wrote this story.)