Opposition to BQX street car service may force backers to explain continued support in face of growing criticism


Last week, New York City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park) announced demands for more transportation options for the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, which he represents, including making requests for the renovation of a ferry stop, the deployment of Citi Bikes, and a traffic safety study, amongst other requests. Councilmember Menchaca's announcement was the subject of a report published by amNew York. That report included news that Councilmember Menchaca would not support the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector street car service, known as the BQX, which has been a cornerstone proposal of the de Blasio administration.

Councilmember Menchaca's opposition to the BQX was based on the plan's predicate that it would be funded by the gentrification of the neighborhoods that would be served by the street car service, according to the report. His opposition to the BQX represented a clear pivot from earlier public comments, dating back to May 2016, when he said that community input and the approval of a final design would determine whether he would support the BQX.  The prior statements were noted in a report published at that time then also by amNew York.

The issue of gentrification has inspired new waves of community organising from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens to Flatbush in Brooklyn, from Long Island City to Sunnyside in Queens, from the Lower East Side to Spanish Harlem to Inwood in Manhattan, all the way up to Mott Haven in The Bronx. In very rare instances, Municipal legislators have heeded the call of the anti-gentrification movement to vote down what some activists have referred to as "spot rezonings." Last year, a New York City Council committee voted to reject a land use application that would have permitted a developer to build a zone-busting building after Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Inwood) announced that he would withdraw support for the project due to community opposition, according to a report published by DNAinfo New York.

Source : New York City Economic Development Corporation/Fair Use

Source : New York City Economic Development Corporation/Fair Use

For land use matters that are larger than a "spot rezoning," the institutional power of the real estate lobby and elected officials, who have received large contributions from real estate interests, have succeeded in running roughshod over community opposition. In 2016, the New York City Council approved wide-ranging text amendments to New York City's land use laws that were being championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), according to a report published by DNAinfo New York. The land use text amendments, known as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and the Zoning for Quality and Affordability, or MIH/ZQA, were enacted following sometimes overwhelming community opposition. As reported by Progress Queens, the initial text amendments for MIH/ZQA were approved by only two out of fourteen Queens Community Boards before the New York City Council over-rode the advisory opinions of all of the City's Community Boards.

Since the proposed route for the BQX stretches for sixteen miles of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfronts, the anti-gentrification organising in various communities have faced longer odds in defeating the BQX than a one-off "spot rezoning." But that challenge has not deterred several groups from fighting the BQX, including UPROSE, which has expressed criticism for some of the BQX's supporters, as was noted in a report published by The New York Daily News. Indeed a documentary, Gentrification Express : Breaking Down the BQX, was produced with the support of several groups. One of the anti-BQX groups, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, seized on the news of Councilmember Menchaca's stated opposition to the BQX by making a new call on Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) to similarly announce opposition to the BQX on the grounds that gentrification would hurt long-term Queens residents. The Queens Anti-Gentrification Project announced its most recent demand via a Facebook post published on Wednesday. In the past, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project has made similar demands of Councilmember Van Bramer, most visibly on a march last April through Councilmember Van Bramer's district, as noted in a report published by Progress Queens. Recently, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Group has undertaken fundraising efforts to benefit the publisher of Progress Queens.

For this report, Councilmember Van Bramer did not answer an interview request made by Progress Queens.

Announcement preëmpted LGBT activists from pressuring Menchaca

The announcement by Councilmember Menchaca to oppose the BQX caught some off-guard, according to information obtained by Progress Queens. For months, some LGBT activists have been attempting to cobble together LGBT community support against the neoliberal economic policies of Councilmembers in the LGBT caucus, including Councilmembers Menchaca and Van Bramer. However, according to information obtained by Progress Queens, some key LGBT activists in Queens have not been interested in forming a coälition to challenge the neoliberal economic policies of elected LGBT officials in the Municipal legislature. Seemingly, without a civic campaign waged on Councilmember Menchaca by LGBT activists, he announced a pivot that appeared to be answering the call that would have been made by those fighting the gentrification caused by large-scale development projects. Notwithstanding, it has been reported that Councilmember Menchaca's primary reëlection campaign has faced pressure from challengers.

Whereas Councilmember Menchaca's stated opposition to the BQX cited gentrification as grounds, some Government reform activists were left wondering why Councilmember Menchaca's opposition to the BQX overlooked the fact that questions have long been raised about the role of political donations behind Mayor de Blasio's proposal of the BQX. Before the turn of the last year, The New York Daily News revealed that real estate developers with stakes in projects alongst the proposed route of the BQX had made nearly $250,000 in donations to the non-profit lobbying arm that Mayor de Blasio operated out of City Hall. Mayor de Blasio was reportedly the subject of a wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation that probed whether his administration was granting official acts in exchange for receiving political donations ; ultimately, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim cleared Mayor de Blasio of any wrong-doing. Nevertheless, last week-end, the Editorial Board of The New York Daily News invoked the BQX as an example of pay-to-play corruption.

For this report, Councilmember Menchaca did not answer an interview request made by Progress Queens, asking him to explain why the allegations of pay-to-play corruption were not cited as a consideration in his decision to oppose the BQX.

Differences between LGBT Municipal legislators

One prominent LGBT activist in Queens, Pauline Park, noted contradictions between Councilmember Menchaca's announced opposition to the BQX and Councilmember Van Bramer's mum response.

"Light rail is generally a good option for public transport, but Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed BQX raises serious questions that remain unanswered to date, especially given that the total cost of the project is estimated at $2.5 billion," said Ms. Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, or NYAGRA, in a statement issued to Progress Queens, adding, "It's good to see that Councilmember Carlos Menchaca recognizes that the BQX could potentially contribute to gentrification and displace residents living in its path ; conversely, it's unfortunate that Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer's ties to the real estate industry seem to weigh more heavily in his calculations than the needs and interests of his own constituents and low- and middle-income New Yorkers more generally." Ms. Park is a resident of Jackson Heights who led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. She has provided Progress Queens, from time to time since its inception, with concise political analysis.

Ms. Park's statement of Councilmember Van Bramer's ties to real estate referred to large amounts of campaign contributions that Councilmember Van Bramer has reportedly received from the individuals with ties to the industry. The Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, the group that has been waging a civic campaign against Councilmember Van Bramer, recently identified over $100,000 in real estate industry-linked campaign contributions that the Councilmember has accepted. The revelation was made in a blog post published by the group and later repeated in an editorial written by a member of the group and published by City Limits.

The proposed route of the BQX would also run the street car through the districts of Councilmembers Stephen Levin (D-Williamsburg) and Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria). In the past, Councilmember Levin indicated that he supported the BQX by citing its "potential benefits" during a television news interview broadcast by the NY1 cable news channel. As for Councilmember Constantinides, he did not firmly express support for or opposition to the proposal in a report published by DNAinfo New York. Each of Councilmembers Levin and Constantinides did not immediately answer requests for interviews for this report to explain whether the allegation of pay-to-play corruption would affect their opinions of the BQX. 

Unclear whether closure of Federal investigation would prevent new probes from being opened

Over a year before Mayor de Blasio was eventually cleared of any wrong-doing in connection with the wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation, Progress Queens had reported that there was law enforcement interest in the non-profit lobbying arm operated by Mayor de Blasio, to which the real estate backers of the BQX had made contributions. However, it is not known whether just because Federal authorities had cleared Mayor de Blasio of wrong-doing that there remained no further law enforcement interest in the underlying official acts reportedly granted by the de Blasio administration. For this report, that question was not answered by several contacts with the Federal prosecutors' offices of New York City, as were other questions, including whether the official acts of other elected officials would draw scrutiny in response to the exchange of large amounts of political contributions or what would constitute the meeting of a predicate to open a preliminary investigation into allegations of pay-to-play corruption.

It is not immediately known whether community groups active in the districts represented by Councilmembers Levin and Constantinides would similary wage a civic campaign against those Municipal legislators as the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project has launched against Councilmember Van Bramer. In the face of a possible tipping point, supporters of the BQX remained steadfastly committed to seeing through the street car project until it won approval. A spokesperson for a group lobbying for the street car's approval, the Friends of the BQX, released a statement to Progress Queens denying that the project was facing collapse, stating that, "Our coalition of supporters is growing steadily and currently stands at over 100 members, from the Transport Workers Union to public housing residents associations to dozens of small businesses. And just last week, Mayor de Blasio reiterated his enthusiastic commitment to the BQX. While some may still have doubts, receiving support from such a diverse range of people and organizations makes us optimistic that we can win them over."

Separately, the spokesperson for the Friends of the BQX, Stu Loeser, strongly affirmed his beliefs that Councilmember Menchaca's opposition to the BQX would not have an affect on the outcome of the project's fate, because Councilmember Menchaca had never expressly supported the project ; that the reports and editorials of The New York Daily News did not represent new opposition to the BQX ; and that Mayor de Blasio's recent reiteration of his strong support of the project was more determinative of the project's success. Betraying Mr. Loeser's latter assessment is the long-tradition of the New York City Council of giving deference to local Councilmembers, whose districts would be affected by large real estate development, by voting in lockstep with such Councilmembers on the fate of large projects.

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