January Community Update

’Twas the Night Before Christmas… when Extell Sued a Non-Profit over its Opposition to Supertall UWS Skyscraper

            I’ve been working with a coalition of New Yorkers, including Community Board 7, LandmarkWest!, Upper West Side block associations, and the City Club, to fight the wave of “supertall” buildings that threaten the Upper West Side, including the 775-foot-tall luxury high-rise that the Extell Corporation is seeking to build at 50 West 66th Street.  I’m also fighting to eliminate the “mechanical void” loophole in certain R9 and R10 zoning districts (mostly found in Manhattan), which allows developers to insert massive empty spaces into their buildings in order skirt zoning laws and boost their overall height.  Developers do this so they can get higher prices for upper-floor apartments.  Extell wants to use the mechanical void loophole at 50 W. 66th Street to add 160 feet to the building’s height.  It’s an outrageous practice, and it has to stop!

            I’m one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Extell filed in April by the City Club of New York.  On Christmas Eve, Extell’s lawyers filed a countersuit against the City Club, seeking financial damages.

New Laws Take Effect in 2020

            Several new laws – on birth certificates, cash bail, “pre-registering” to vote, farmworkers’ rights, and boating safety, among others – are taking effect beginning in 2020. 

            And an increase in the minimum wage began on December 31, with hourly minimums rising

to $15 an hour in New York City, $13 on Long Island and in Westchester County, and $11.80 in the rest of the state.

            I was proud to have been an Assembly cosponsor of a bill (sponsored by Assembly Member David Weprin and Senator Andrew Lanza) that allows persons who were adopted unrestricted access to their birth certificates once they turn eighteen.  Previously, adoptees could only get access by petitioning a court, and even then only with the consent of both biological parents.  The law, which was strongly supported by many adoptees seeking potentially life-saving information on their family medical history, takes effect on January 15.

DEFENDING CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORMS: On Dec. 10, I joined advocates and elected officials to defend pre-sentencing reforms like eliminating the cash bail requirement for most non-violent crimes.

            Important changes are also taking place affecting cash bail and streamlining pre-trial procedure.  Beginning on January 1, persons charged with most misdemeanors and Class E felonies will no longer be required to post cash bail or bond to be released from jail

while awaiting trial, which will help end the criminalization of poverty that imprisons those not yet convicted simply because they can’t afford bail. 

            Several reforms to speed up trials and streamline the discovery process also took effect on January 1.

            Also taking effect on January 1 was a new law allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to “pre-register” to vote by completing a voter registration form that will make them automatically eligible to vote once they turn 18, making New York the 14th state to allowing pre-registration for persons beginning at age 16.

            Farmworkers have more rights under Farm Labor Fair Practices Act that took effect on January 1, aligning them with those already guaranteed other workers in New York: an eight-hour workday, with one mandatory rest day each week for farmworkers, as well as overtime pay set at time and a half.  The law makes it illegal for an employer to “lock out” farm workers over pay disputes or for seeking to unionize.

            Starting January 1, New Yorkers born in 1993 or later will now be required to

take a safety course before operating a motorboat or jet ski.  “Brianna’s Law” – named after Brianna Lieneck, an 11-year-old killed in a boat crash off Long Island in 2005 – will require every motor boat or jet ski operator to take a course and obtain a boating safety license before operating a motorized vessel on New York waterways, by expanding the age group every year until all motorboat or jet ski operators are included in 2025.

Governor Pledges to Remove Tow Pound from Pier 76

            On Sunday, January 5, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the State would ensure that the NYPD tow pound vacate Pier 76 in the Hudson River by the end of this year.  In 1998, the State Hudson River Park Act (which I sponsored in the Assembly) required

the City to use its “best efforts” to vacate the Pier so it would become part of the Park.  It’s long overdue.

PIER 76: Soon to be part of Hudson River Park (photo credit: Office of Governor Cuomo)

            The ownership of the nearly 250,000 square-foot Pier 76, located near West 38th Street across 12th Avenue from the High Line, the Javits Center, and Hudson Yards, will then be transferred to the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) and the Pier will become part of the Park.  HRPT will develop a plan for Pier 76 and for Pier 40, located near West Houston Street.  Planning for Pier 40 has also been in limbo for years.  The plan is to balance maximizing open space and recognizing the financial needs of the Hudson River Park on both piers.  The community is to be involved in developing the plan. 

            I’m joining Manhattan Community Board 4 and other elected officials representing the Hudson River waterfront in enthusiastically supporting the Governor’s initiatives for the Park.

Penn Station Expansion

            On Monday, January 6, Governor Cuomo announced that the State plans to accelerate improvements to Penn Station including easier access to the street and to trains and adding 8 new tracks under the block south the Station (30th to 31st Streets, Seventh to Eighth Avenues).   This will increase Penn Station’s train capacity by 40 percent.  This will help assure Penn Station’s vital role as the busiest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere long into the future.

            Governor Cuomo also announced that the new Moynihan Station being developed in the old Post Office building will open in December 2020.

Five Tin Pan Alley Buildings Are Designated Landmarks

            In a big win for the local community and for preservationists, on December 10 the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to designate five buildings in New York City’s fabled Tin Pan Alley as New York City landmarks. We had been fighting for years to get Tin Pan Alley, the block of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, designated. It became famous in the late 1800s for its association with American popular music.  Dozens of music publishers and songwriters, including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter worked out of offices in a row of Italianate townhouses on 28th Street, writing classic songs like “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

            The most recent testimony I wrote in 2019 and submitted to the LPC along with

New York City Council Speaker Corey John-

son urging it to designate five buildings in Tin Pan Alley as landmarks: 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 West 28th Street.  The LPC’s action in December is the culmination of a long and hard-fought battle to preserve this vital piece of New York’s, and America’s, history.  

Public Finance Commission Issues Recommendations

            New York badly needs to combat the impact that big-money interests exert on State government – and I’ve been fighting to change the system.  It’s not a new cause for me – I wrote New York’s first bill on public campaign financing. 

            To help address mega-donors’ out-sized influence on New York’s government, the Governor and legislative leaders agreed that New

York State needed to create and implement a small-donor matching system for elections for State offices.  By matching small donations with public funding,  voices of all New Yorkers are strengthened instead of being overwhelmed by well-heeled special interests.

            Unfortunately, the Legislature and the Governor did not come to agreement on a campaign finance reform program before the end of the legislative session in June.  Instead, we created a “Public Financing Commission” charged with approving a campaign finance reform package by December, with Governor Cuomo promising that it would establish a campaign finance system that would serve as a “model for the nation.”  The recommendations it issued at the end of November will become law unless the Legislature amends or repeals them.

            The commission process was highly questionable, with its members apparently getting side-tracked by questions like whether to bar “fusion voting,” which allows different political parties in New York to endorse the same candidate; and whether to raise increase how many votes a “third party” would need to receive in order to be legally recognized with an official ballot line.

            Though the Commission did not act to eliminate fusion voting outright, as has been feared, it did move to increase the threshold for parties to obtain a position on the ballot, which puts their long-term survival in jeopardy.  Up until now, “third” parties like the Working Families Party and Conservative Party had to receive 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to maintain a ballot line and thus field candidates in a range of elections across the state on that ballot line over the course of the next four years. Under the Commission’s rules, instead of qualifying in every four-year gubernatorial election, parties will have to receive 2% of all votes cast or 130,000 votes, whichever is higher, for either governor or president, meaning that parties would have to requalify every two years with a significantly higher number of votes than are currently required of them every four years.  (No other state in the country that allows fusion voting requires “third” parties to qualify during presidential election years.) 

            The question of party qualification should have never been a part of this commission. Third parties are an essential part of the electoral system in New York, shining light on important issues that otherwise may not get the attention they deserve.  The proposed thresholds for par-ty qualification are unacceptable.  We should be making it easier for third parties to make it on the ballot, not harder.

            That’s why I have introduced legislation to undo the recommendations of the Public Campaign Finance Commission relating to “third” parties.  My bill would restore the provisions of the Election Law relating to third parties.

            I will be working with other legislators to fix the problems created by the Commission’s set of recommendations, ensure the viability of smaller political parties, and make the proposed matching campaign finance system for New York State even stronger.

Looming State Budget Shortfall Threatens Medicaid Funding

            New York’s budget gap for the coming year stands at an estimated $6.1 billion, with much of that shortfall attributed to the State’s Medicaid program.  In order to maintain a “global spending cap” imposed by Governor Cuomo on Medicaid spending, his administration shifted more than $1 billion in Medicaid payments into the next (2020) fiscal year.

            Governor Cuomo’s administration ascribes the Medicaid deficit to several factors, including the effect of an increase in New York’s minimum wage on health care providers, a phase-

out of some federal funding, an aging population resulting in greater demand for long-term care, and the rising cost of that long-term care.

            We can’t cut Medicaid spending to the bone in order to comply with an artificially imposed spending cap without jeopardizing the health of millions of New York families who depend on this vital program.  As Chair of the Assembly Health Committee, I’ll be working to protect Medicaid patients by providing it with additional revenue on high-income earners.

FIGHTING TO PRESERVE NEW YORK’S HISTORY: Last month, I joined members of the 29th Street Association and other elected officials to rally support for designating the Demarest Building on Fifth Avenue as a New York City landmark.

Fighting to Preserve a Historic Fifth Avenue Building

     On December 18, I spoke at a rally to urge the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to grant landmark designation to the Demarest Building at 339 Fifth Avenue. An historic Beaux-Arts, iron-framed structure with four-story-high arched windows located on 33rd Street across from the Empire State Building, the Demarest was built in 1890 and originally housed a horse carriage showroom as well as the first electrically operated elevator in the world.  It was designed by the architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell, whose founder James Renwick also created the plans for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, among many other famous buildings.  Unfortunately, the Demarest is facing demolition because its owner, Pi Capital Partners, has filed an application to construct a new building.

      I have previously joined with community members and electing officials in unsuccessfully urging the preservation of the Demarest and other historic buildings in the area as part of a proposed expansion of the Madison Square North Historic District.  Now, our effort to save the Demarest is assuming new urgency in light of the imminent threat to its survival.

Assembly Task Force on Opiate Addiction

            Across our state, New Yorkers have been struggling to overcome an epidemic of opioid abuse.  To help address the crisis, the NYS Assembly Majority has formed a “Task Force on Examining Socio-Economic Responses to People with Substance Use Disorders.”  I was appointed to serve on the Task Force by Speaker Carl Heastie.

            Opioid addiction does not discriminate, impacting New Yorkers of all ages, races, and genders across the state.  This Task Force will help guide the state’ response with the insight of stakeholders and experts in the field, as we work to break down barriers preventing access to care and services.

         The Task Force will convene hearings to receive recommendations on how to address the opioid epidemic, as well as learn about the impacts of substance use disorders on those that suffer from the disorder, on their support systems, and on their communities.         

The formation of the Task Force is not the first step that the Assembly has taken in 2019 to address the crisis; earlier this year, the Assembly and the State Senate allocated $1 million for NYS substance abuse and rehabilitation service.