Town Hall Panel Touts Strategies, New and Ongoing


Photo by Zach Williams City Councilmember Corey Johnson (right, at podium) moderated, as a panel of city officials address local concern.
Photo by Zach Williams
City Councilmember Corey Johnson (right, at podium) moderated, as a panel of city officials addressed local concerns.

BY ZACH WILLIAMS | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 3, 2014  |  City Councilmember Corey Johnson hosted local and city officials at a March 25 town hall meeting held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre (333 West 23rd Street).

Over 100 residents attended, as Johnson moderated a discussion on topics including education, traffic safety and noise mitigation — with a focus on new strategies being employed to improve quality of life. Inter-agency cooperation is the key to unlocking solutions, officials said in response to audience questions read by Johnson throughout the meeting.

Asked how the increasingly crowded Chelsea and Greenwich Village area can accommodate the demands of universal pre-kindergarten, Department of Education representative Sadye Campoamor said community organizations have submitted an abundance of proposals to provide space for a projected 20,000 area youngsters. The approval that day by the department of a new middle school at 75 Morton Street was an example, said Campoamor, of such “community initiative.”

Mary Basset, newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said early in the event that public servants are seeking a new strategy of community outreach which requires them to “not do to people, do with people.”

Consolidated Edison spokesperson Pat Richardi said the company depends on the public in order to prevent leaks, which can lead to explosions — such as that which occurred near the intersection of Park Avenue and East 116th Street on March 12, leading to seven fatalities.

“Your noses are our first line of defense,” she said.

The company is currently exceeding regulatory safety requirements, she said. This year, 65 aging pipes were replaced at the same time as operations expand in order to meet the growing demand.

One question read by Johnson elicited ironic chuckles from the crowd: “Why is Con Ed always doing construction on the streets?”

Richardi responded by saying the company faces a large volume of requested projects, each with individual challenges, in Chelsea and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We are seeing more requests for additional gas, additional electric, additional steam, safety and reliability,” she said.

Candles are now the third leading cause of residential fires in the city, according to Kevin Anderson, who represented the FDNY Fire Safety Division on the panel. Some local buildings quarantine flames within individual units, requiring residents to stay inside in the event of a fire in another unit rather than using fire escapes, he added.

Accidents were not the only issue raised by the audience on the topic of home security and well-being.

Safeguarding house and home against invaders requires the involvement of residents as well as landlords, officials said. Ensuring that doors and windows are always locked could help temper a spike in local burglaries say police — but rats and mold are more resilient foes, said officials from other departments.

A 2013 city law empowers the Department of Housing and Building Preservation to issue orders against landlords who fail to address mold issues discovered through visual inspection, according to Deputy Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo. A similar authority is in place to address tenant complaints about rats, said Basset, though expectations cannot be too high.

“I can’t say we are going to eliminate them,” she said.

However, one plan to eradicate a growing scourge of city life is well underway. Stronger enforcement of traffic laws on cyclists led NYPD officials to tout initial progress in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eventually eliminate traffic fatalities in the city.

Keeping cyclists in bike lanes and motorists out is part of an “aggressive” effort, according to NYPD Capt. David Miller, commander of the 10th Precinct. Of 68 biking accidents in Chelsea last year, only eight occurred within designated bicycle lanes, he said.

More than 600 summonses have been issued recently as part of the effort, he added. Decreasing the speed of all moving within busy local streets is part of an overall plan to mix crime and transportation safety strategies with extended public outreach. More speed barriers are also being considered for accident-prone areas, Miller said. Street intervention teams will also roam the streets reminding violators of the law.

“We like to target hot spots,” Miller noted.

Extreme circumstances are required to relocate Citi Bike share sites, but residents have opportunities nonetheless to take some control of their streets.

Citizens can adopt street meridians, which are normally overseen in partnership between the Parks Department and the Department of Sanitation. It is just one way that residents can increase the prevalence of trees in the local area. Reaching out to city councilmembers may also lead to empty tree pits being filled.

Addressing sound pollution evoked the lone catcall of the evening, in response to a question on the criteria for granting permits for after-hours construction. Byron Muñoz, a representative of the Department of Buildings, said, “We believe in engaging in after hours work for safety.”

A heckle followed the remark. Muñoz remained quiet during the interruption, but subsequently added that the volume of complaints made to the department about a particular site can influence the prospects of future applications.

Rowdy bars in the Meatpacking District are difficult to tame, said Inspector Elisa Cokkinos (former commander of Chelsea’s 10th Precinct, who now oversees the Village’s Sixth Precinct). A cabaret team targeting violators has issued 10,000 summonses, she said. Still, the department is challenged by the area’s density of bars.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” said Cokkinos.

Keeping fares down on public transportation will also be difficult, according to Zachary Campbell, Assistant Director, MTA NYC Transit. He declined to comment on the possibility that subway fares will increase this year, but said technology will have an influence in any case on tickets.

The agency is considering the adoption of smart phone technology as a replacement to the currently used magnetic cards. Though such a plan is still years away from implementation, he added that more than money passes to the agency when straphangers swipe through turnstiles. Data garnered from the cards is used by the agency to determine the number and habits of riders. Analysis of resulting statistics influences decisions on service levels, he said.

Throughout the night, city officials stressed the utility of 311, in response to audience queries on how to contact them.

In one of the evening’s final remarks, Muñoz promoted a new Department of Buildings mobile phone application meant to engage the public. Like speakers before, he concluded by mentioning the opportunities citizens have to engage city departments on a personal basis, such as his department’s planned workshops meant to steer homeowners through the permit process of renovation.

“It’s a discovery time before you engage a professional,” he said.