Paul Hovitz Concludes 27 Years of Service on Community Board 1
After nearly three decades of building schools, fighting for affordable housing, championing cultural institutions, and generally making Lower Manhattan a better place to live, Paul Hovitz has stepped down from Community Board 1(CB1), where he has served as vice chairman for three years, and previously presided as chair of the Youth & Education Committee. On that panel (where he also served as co-chair, once he ascended to the vice chairmanship of CB1 as whole in 2016), he drew upon decades of experience as a special education instructor in the City’s public school system.
At the June 25 meeting of the Board, CB1 member Bob Townley (who is also the founder and executive director of Manhattan Youth), said “Paul is a teacher, but he’s also a community activist. He represented and knew both sides of the coin. Because of that, we were very, very, successful over the years in getting things done.”
“You can talk about what a nice guy Paul is, how handsome he is,” Mr. Townley continued, “but he is a real doer. And he influenced me and every other member of this committee by his love for children, as a teacher, and by his love for community.”
Tricia Joyce, chair of CB1’s Youth & Education Committee, recalled that, “I came to the Board a decade ago, because I had two kindergartners in one of eight kindergarten classes at P.S. 234, even though it was built for just five kindergarten classes. And I was in a panic as a first-time parent of twins.”
“I went to a meeting hosted by [then Borough President] Scott Stringer,” Ms. Joyce remembered, “and he explained that this wasn’t new. It had started in the early 1990s, had also happened in the 1970s. It follows gentrification.”
“So I found myself, even though I had long experience as an activist, in a position where I needed a crash course in how to deal with the Department of Education [DOE] if I was going to get involved and try to represent this community and our youth,” she added. “And everything I know, I attribute to Paul. He trained me, and trained me well. He introduced me to terminology, because DOE has secret words, like ‘buckets’ and ‘portfolios.'”
“I can’t tell you how many times he rallied me on when I had an idea, but wasn’t sure how to move forward,” Ms. Joyce reflected, “because I hadn’t had enough experience at that point to take it somewhere. And he said, ‘just do it.’ So thank you, Paul, for every gentle push, thanks for the crash course, and thanks the ongoing education.”
Paul Goldstein, who chairs CB1’s Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committeenoted that, “back in the 1990s, at the time when he was appointed and I was the Board’s district manager, Paul was one of the few members of CB1 who had children, which shows how much the community has changed.”
“One of the first projects we worked on together was the creation of P.S. 234,” Mr. Goldstein recalled. “This involved a trade-off that was controversial at the time: CB1 accepted a developer’s plan for a very tall building at 380 Greenwich, the Citicorp Building. But in return, we insisted on our first-ever public school for CB1 — P.S. 234.”
In an illustration of the historian’s maxim that “no victory is ever final,” this led immediately to a new battle. “Once P.S. 234 had finally opened, it was zoned only for people living west of Broadway, but Lower Manhattan residents living east of Broadway were not eligible to attend,” Mr. Goldstein remembered. “So Paul and I joined forces, and getting children from the East Side the opportunity to go there was one of our first big victories.”
This marked the beginning of decades of activism on behalf of Lower Manhattan schools by Mr. Hovitz. He subsequently fought for the creation of P.S. 89/I.S. 289 and P.S./I.S. 276, both in Battery Park City, as well as the Spruce Street and Peck Slip Schools, near the South Street Seaport. More recently, he was a key advocate for the creation of the new public school now under construction at 77 Greenwich Street, in the Financial District, which is slated to open in 2020.
Once DOE had committed to building a school there, he embarked on subsequent campaigns to ensure that the facility would have separate spaces for gym and performing arts classes, and that the plaza in front of the building would be large enough to enable safe drop-off and pick-up of hundreds of small children each day. At the same time, Mr. Hovitz helped lead a similar push to close the street in front of the Peck Slip School to traffic, so that students could use it as a play space.
He was further involved in two successive battles to save Tribeca’s P.S. 150, when DOE officials decided (most recently in 2018) that the valuable real estate occupied by the highly regarded elementary school made it cost prohibitive to operate. In each case, these campaigns were successful, and P.S. 150 got a new lease on life.
Mr. Hovitz was also instrumental, Mr. Goldstein recalled, in convening the School Overcrowding Task Force, a panel of elected officials, community leaders, and DOE decision-makers, who met for several years to strategize about how to ease the crisis created by the popularity of Lower Manhattan public schools, amid the area’s burgeoning residential population in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
He additionally helped lead local protests, in 2014, seeking to persuade DOE officials to place less emphasis on standardized tests for young pupils, which many parents and educators have come to regard as a stressful distraction for students.
When not waging political battle on behalf of schools and students, Mr. Hovitz was also a consistent advocate for affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying community. This position took on a personal edge four years ago, when he led a quixotic (and ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to prevent the Southbridge Towers apartment complex, where he has lived for decades, from withdrawing from the Mitchell-Lama affordability program. Mr. Hovitz opposed the privatization of Southbridge Towers in spite of the fact that the proposed change promised a significant financial windfall for him, along with all other residents. “I just didn’t see how I could agree to any plan that would deny to later generations the same opportunity for a decent home at a reasonable price that I had benefitted from,” he said at the time. In spite of Mr. Hovitz’s opposition, Southbridge withdrew from the Mitchell-Lama program at the close of 2015.
Mr. Hovitz’s community leadership has always been especially focused on the South Street Seaport neighborhood, where he has been a patron and protector of the South Street Seaport Museum, and joined a broad coalition of residents and elected officials to oppose a 2009 plan by developer General Growth Properties to erect a skyscraper next to Pier 17, on the site of the New Market Building. More recently, he has brokered a dialog between the Howard Hughes Corporation (the successor to General Growth Properties in redeveloping the Seaport) that has resulted in generous corporate support for local schools and community service organizations, such as the Downtown Little League.
In 2016, he was part of a coalition of community leaders who opposed (unsuccessfully) a plan by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to hand over to building owners along Water Street more than 100,000 square feet of arcades and plazas that were created as public amenities, allowing developers to enclose and privatize these spaces by building new retail storefronts.
That same year, Mr. Hovitz exposed a local scandal by documenting that paid political consultants, masquerading as opinion-poll researchers, were in reality trying to manipulate Lower Manhattan residents into supporting this plan, by calling them under the pretext of representing City Council member Margaret Chin. When the lobbying team hired to push this proposal initially denied the accusation, Mr. Hovitz provided photographic proof, in the form of a Caller ID screen on his home phone falsely ascribing such a call to Ms. Chin’s office. At that point, the lobbying team reversed itself, admitted that this deception had taken place, and apologized, while blaming the subterfuge on a rogue subcontractor.
“He’s been very effective,” Mr. Goldstein said at the June 25 meeting. “His combination of being personable and persistent, and knowing how to work a room, has enabled him to get many, many things done.”
Mr. Goldstein closed by saying to Mr. Hovitz, “I urge you to stay involved. But somehow I doubt that you will need such an invitation,” which elicited a round of appreciative laughter and sustained applause.
Mr. Hovitz then rose and observed that, “the general gives orders to the guys in the trenches and the coach figures out the plan for the team. You folks are the soldiers in the trenches and you are the members of the team. It took a village to get all these things accomplished, and you are the village. It has been a great honor and a privilege for me to work with you.”
“This is not a farewell,” Mr. Hovitz continued, noting that he will continue to serve on the board of directors of Manhattan Youth and the community advisory board of New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. “I’ve also been approached to create an East River Trust, which will be another project,” he said.
“I love you all,” he concluded. “But I will not be missed, because I will still be around.”
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