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Development Takes Center Stage In 33rd District City Council Debate

The list of neighborhoods that lie within Brooklyn’s 33rd City Council district reads like something out of a real estate developer’s wet dream: Greenpoint; parts of Williamsburg including the waterfront and the Southside; Boerum Hill; Downtown Brooklyn; Brooklyn Heights; DUMBO; and Vinegar Hill. Large swaths of the district have recently been rezoned to allow for greater development, and many residents are unhappy with the way the deal has gone down. The city has delivered only a small portion of the promised parks and affordable housing, while ongoing cuts in services beg the question: How are the already straining schools, firehouses, parks, and trains of the district going to accommodate tens of thousands of new residents?

Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.

These questions form the backdrop against which the 2009 race for New York City Mayor must take place. So it came as no surprise, at a May 19 debate at Harry Van Arsdale High School Auditorium in Williamsburg, that the prize the seven candidates seemed to be fighting for was the audience’s faith that he or she would be best qualified to grant more power to communities in future planning debates.

The debate pit insiders against outsiders, with a few experienced community organizers in the middle. Top on the list of insiders was Steve Levin, who came on board as Chief of Staff for State Assemblyman Vito Lopez in 2006 after leading an anti-predatory lending program in Bushwick for years. Levin spoke clearly and strongly throughout the night. “We closed the loopholes for the luxury development that has decimated much of our neighborhoods,” Levin said of his work with Lopez.

Yet Levin simultaneously stood out as the only candidate who did not fully repudiate the rezonings of Downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg/Greenpoint, in 2004 and 2005 respectively. When asked how he would ensure that the neighborhoods saw the benefits promised them, Levin praised “the affordability ratios that were written into the rezoning,” and “the fact that it was the first rezoning that required that [workers] be paid the prevailing wage.”

Other candidates were less sanguine, speaking to the anger of the crowd. Evan Thies, the 29-year-old Chief of Staff for David Yassky’s office, called the rezonings “an utter failure in many respects,” and the outsiders largely agreed. Ken Diamondstone, an experienced community activist whose work has focused on LGBT and environmental issues, called it “fraudulent from the beginning.” The contender from the Hasidic community, Isaac Abraham, took the opportunity to broadside local government from stern to prow. “I see elected officials sitting quiet,” he said. “When you bring in five or ten thousand new brand-new units and firehouses are being closed, that’s a problem.”

Doug Biviano, a Brooklyn Heights civil engineer with no previous government experience, offered the most radical proposal for community-based planning. “I actually have a very specific initiative to give Community Boards and Borough Presidents veto power over rezonings,” Biviano said. 

Meanwhile, Jo Anne Simon, a teacher and lawyer for thirty years, offered the most practical ideas. After pointing to her work bringing ten community groups from Downtown Brooklyn together to weigh in on the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, she briefly pitched the idea of requiring that every rezoning include a transportation plan.

After about an hour, the format shifted to the short form, in which candidates were asked to provide one-word answers. The usefulness of requiring candidates to answer yes or no to questions like “Do you support the Kent Avenue bike lane?” is questionable—the issue is far too complicated for such an answer to meaningfully communicate a candidate’s position. Yet elected officials need to be able to think under pressure, and the apparent breakdowns some candidates experienced in this context seemed to help winnow the field.

Ken Baer, for instance, a former Vice-Chair of the NYC chapter of the Sierra Club and an advocate of cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, had done well up to this point, keeping parks and open space in focus. However, when faced with the short form he suddenly seemed to lose the ability to understand the moderator’s questions and made several awkward requests to receive them in writing. The difference in his performance style when forced to think on his feet called into question his ability to listen to constituents in situations that may often be difficult.

Doug Biviano’s fumble was even more painful. Up until this point, he’d seemed the race’s most exciting candidate. While issues like the Iraq War and “medicare for all” aren’t exactly in the purview of a City Council member, Biviano’s Obama-esque flights of rhetoric made him the most enjoyable candidate to listen to in a field thick with jargon and bureaucrat-ese. He seemed to be the only candidate interested in the broader field of radical politics that includes the national antiwar and environmental movements, and he seemed a welcome alternative as he proposed the evening’s most far-seeing ideas, including veto power for community boards and a greater national leadership role for America’s “city-states.”

But confusion appeared on Biviano’s face when Ken Baer offered “handsome” as the one adjective that best described him. “I’m glad Ken [Diamonstone] didn’t say that,” Biviano parried.

Unfortunately, because Diamondstone is a prominent LGBT activist, it was hard to read this joke as anything but a homophobic gaffe. An audience that might otherwise have been prepared to forgive that uncomfortable moment then seemed to turn on Biviano when he pitched himself as a “fearless” leader capable of leading Brooklyn, having once “sailed across the ocean in a twenty-seven foot boat!” Hearty laughter ensued.

Abraham came off as unserious, too, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood and thirty-five years of political engagement. Most of his answers to the questions were basically one-liners or condemnations of “elected officials” as a whole.  

That left Levin, Thies, Diamondstone, and Simon in the ring. Levin and Thies are both insiders to Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, with Levin showing better communication skills while Thies shows slightly more radical thinking. Levin probably has a leg up on Thies, too, because Vito Lopez is putting some of his massive clout into supporting him, while Thies’ former boss, David Yassky, has declared himself neutral in the race—perhaps in order to win Lopez’s endorsement as he runs for Comptroller, according to the political magazine City Hall News.

Simon and Diamondstone are experienced community organizers and therefore relative outsiders, but in the pissed-off political climate of District 33, where everyone seems hungry for a representative with true grassroots credentials, that may come in handy. Simon in particular appeared seasoned and reasonable, and seemed to leave the room with the unspoken prize in her pocket as she touted her proven talent for giving communities a strong voice—with teeth—in the future of their neighborhoods.


James Trimarco

James Trimarco's writing has appeared in Vanity Fair magazine.

Krista Hanson


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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