Gang green: Candidates vie over enviro issues at forum

At last Thursday’s environmental forum at Southbridge Towers, from left, Alice Cancel, Don Lee, Gigi Li, Paul Newell, Yuh-Line Niou and Jenifer Rajkumar. In this photo, Cancel is pointedly asking Niou if she was around during past disasters in the district. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The Democratic candidates running for Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District in the Sept. 13 primary election have been vying to raise the most green, as in cash, for their campaigns.

Last Thursday, they competed at a forum for the title of who is personally the “most green” — as in, best on the environment and on sustainability.

The event, held in the Southbridge Towers community room, was sponsored by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and moderated by its president, Marcia Bystryn.

The candidates were asked where they stand on a range of issues, such as resiliency, clean energy, parks and open space, sustainable transportation, and access to fresh and local foods.

Questions were asked by representatives of the Waterfront Alliance, Transportation Alternatives, New Yorkers for Parks and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, as well as by audience members.

The area’s building boom was a major concern of the candidates. Don Lee said he supports a moratorium on luxury high-rise construction in the district. Alice Cancel — who has held the seat since winning a special election in April to succeed the fallen former Speaker Sheldon Silver — said the neighborhood’s problem with mounting garbage must be addressed.

Asked where they stand on congestion pricing, District Leader Paul Newell said he supports the Move NY plan, which would toll the East River bridges.

However, Cancel said, “The people coming into New York should not be taxed — but the big-box stores that come into Manhattan should be.”

Lee said he supports congestion pricing “because it works.”

“Uber has 40,000 more trips per day,” he said, adding that the Verrazano Bridge one-way toll remains an ongoing problem, creating excessive traffic Downtown, and that Park Row must be reopened to traffic.

Gigi Li, a former chairperson of Community Board 3, said, “I support congestion pricing, in its concept.” But she added that there are concerns that the measure could raise the cost of delivery of goods and services in Lower Manhattan. Also, she added, “A lot of people really rely on personal cars in parts of the district — so we need carve-outs [in the plan].”

District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar said she supports congestion pricing, adding that the $1.25 billion in annual funds raised by the initiative should be funneled into improving the local bus system, such as in the East Village and on Grand St. on the Lower East Side.

Yuh-Line Niou, former chief of staff of Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, said she supports congestion pricing — but that the revenue from it would have to be safeguarded from being siphoned off into other budgets in Albany.

Asked if they supported saving the Elizabeth St. Garden, Lee, who is a Chinatown businessman and activist, said, “There are 13 lots in the district that are available for affordable housing — so I am in favor of keeping all green space.”

Li, however, said, “I do support building affordable housing on that lot, with the caveat that some open space is preserved — plus, creating other open space.”

Li’s biggest political supporter, Councilmember Margaret Chin, is the local politician most actively pushing the plan to build housing on the Nolita lot.

Li stated that her position was actually similar to Lee’s on this issue, but Lee quickly retorted, clarifying, “I am for keeping it open space — she’s not.”

Newell said, “I think we can keep our affordable housing stock without building on parks and gardens.”

Niou stated, “I know Community Board 2 has identified two other spaces for affordable housing. Green spaces and affordable housing should not be pitted against each other. I also have basil and carrots growing there, so I would like to protect them,” she said of the Elizabeth St. Garden.

Rajkumar said she was “an early advocate” of the embattled garden, adding, “I have fought for open space in the South Village which was threatened by the N.Y.U. plan.”

On questions about resiliency and responding to another storm on the level of Sandy, Cancel took a shot at Niou, who has only lived in the city a few years.

“I was there, on that forefront, to make sure that every senior, every disabled person, was taken care of,” the incumbent assemblymember said. “Were you here for Hurricane Irene, 9/11…Sandy?” she asked of Niou.

Li pointed out that radio proved to be one of the best ways to communicate when cell phones were knocked out by Sandy.

“We know that now,” she noted.

Rajkumar said she would work with local business improvement districts, BID’s, to help coordinate the response to disasters.

As the candidates answered a question about how to make a proposed small “Brooklyn Bridge Beach” a reality, Lee went on a slight tangent to criticize Basketball City as an inaccessible facility on the Lower East Side waterfront.

“Basketball City — that is adding insult to injury,” he charged, “a slap in the face to people in the area who want to play.”

In their closing statements, Cancel, a resident of Southbridge Towers, tailored her comment to the audience, which contained a fair amount of residents from the complex, located just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. She noted she had called City Hall that morning after a water pipe broke during construction, cutting off water to part of the complex. Her call got results, she noted: The water was quickly restored.

Lee spoke of his community activism.

“This is the work that I do,” he said, “fight for the Grand St. subway [reopening when one of the lines was shut down for construction], get the funding; fight that the criminal justice system is fair to the street vendors in Chinatown — pay it forward, move forward.”

Li said she is running on her track record of finding solutions to community issues, and referred people to her Web site for more information.

“I’m asking for your support because this race will change the face of Lower Manhattan,” she said.

Newell talked about climate change.

“This year is already the hottest year on record,” he said. “We need to stop investing in pipelines and other fossil fuels and move to solar and offshore wind power. It’s putting Lower Manhattan at risk.”

Niou, touting her Albany experience, said, “Because we are all freshman, whoever comes in is going to have a very small budget — the person elected will need the experience and the ability to push things through.”

Rajkumar cited her independence. In a bitter defeat, Newell beat her out for the endorsement of her home political club, Downtown Independent Democrats.

“I’ve always been independent,” she told the audience. “I belong only to you. I am unbought and that’s what will make me an effective legislator. And I know how to fight.”

Afterward, asked what he thought of the forum, one Southbridge resident, a retired print-shop worker, said he was voting for Niou.

“My union is for her,” he said. “I belong to DC 37 and they support her.”