This is the second in a series of short interviews with candidates along with their responses to a very long questionnaire based on reader questions. As these roll out, I will link to the posts on other candidates at the bottom.
It wasn’t hard for Christopher Marte to find reasons to run for City Council. Growing up on Bowery and Rivington, he watched as his father closed his bodega due to rising rents; as a former public school was converted to a luxury hotel, despite a deed restriction for a non-profit; as the state refused to make improvements at the nearby NYCHA housing project.
“I was watching gentrification and displacement take place right in front of me,” he says when asked why he’s running. “And I saw the influence that a City Council member has when it comes to these land deals.” He ran against Margaret Chin in 2017 and was short by 200 votes; this time he’s quit his day job to focus on campaigning full time.
Marte, who is 31, went to PS 20, then Nativity Mission Center School for middle school and St. Agnes on the Upper West Side for high school before he left town for college — winning a scholarship that allowed him to study all over the world, finishing his last year at the London School of Economics. His first job was in finance, at the IBM retirement fund. He left IBM in 2017 to work for Arena, a Democratic PAC financed largely with tech money and focused on flipping seats.
And since he quit to campaign, he’s spent his time organizing would-be constituents: he co-founded Neighbors United Below Canal to fight the jail planned for White Street and has written white papers on resiliency, sanitation, composting and other quality of life issues.
Side note: his brother, Coss Marte, was in Rikers for years, sentenced as a drug kingpin that he indeed was. He’s since been released and founded a personal training service called Conbody — VICE made a documentary on him that is very worth the watch. That’s partially how Marte came to his position on the borough-based jails. “I’ve seen Rikers, I saw what it did to my brother,” he said. “He told me that building this jail is not going to help criminal justice reform. And I know $11 billion to build this jail is not the right move.”
HELPING SMALL BUSINESS
Do you have any solutions for protecting small business from the pressures of rising real estate costs? (tax abatements for landlords who keep mom-and-pop stores?)
The Small Business Jobs Survival Act will help ensure that the rent of commercial spaces doesn’t abruptly skyrocket, and will give owners more leverage when they need to renegotiate their leases. We can control rising real estate costs through community-based rezoning that limits speculation. Only parts of Tribeca have protective zoning, and that’s only due to the efforts of local community activists. When developers are given a free reign to build whatever they want, they will always opt for luxury towers with expensive retail spaces on the ground floor. Rezoning can give us negotiating power in these transactions to advocate for affordable housing and affordable commercial space.
What is your proposal or attitude towards the future of Open Restaurants post-pandemic?
a. Open Restaurants were a great stop-gap while our small businesses waited anxiously for financial relief from the federal government, but in the long-term we need to re-shape the program. At their best, Open Restaurants give small restaurants additional room to serve customers safely and increase their profit, giving them a fighting chance at being able to make up for owed rent. However without real financial aid, the Open Restaurants program will never be enough to help these restaurants truly recover. At their worst, Open Restaurants create sanitation, noise, and traffic hazards. None of these obstacles are insurmountable, but the future of the program should include more community input and regulation. Additionally, as small businesses get back on their feet, we should examine this giveaway of public space and ensure that even those who don’t have the money to spend at restaurants and cafes are still able to enjoy more public seating.
b. During this pandemic, many of the regulations regarding the structure of Open Restaurants have changed rapidly. I worked with a local law firm to provide pro-bono consulting to small businesses, many of them immigrant-owned, to ensure that their spaces were helping to increase their revenue and not increase what they can be fined for.
Do you have any solutions for limiting the regulations and red tape required to both start and maintain small business?
c. As a son and brother of small business owners in Lower Manhattan, I know the real toll bureaucracy can take. Even good small business owners can get straddled with fines over the smallest infractions, and a complex permitting structure only adds to start up and maintenance expenses. During the pandemic, small businesses were forced to close for their own safety, but too many lacked the savings to survive because of thin margins. I worked with a network of small business owners and helped them apply for PPP loans, grants, and helped set up free legal consultation for outdoor dining and lease re-negotiations. We can never take for granted the small businesses that make up the fabric of our city, and we need Small Business Services to be reformed into more than just a passive informational center. It should be SBS’s role to collect information from small businesses, and then act as the liaison for that business to other agencies who grant the wide array of permits. We should repeal outdated fines, and open up financial waivers for new small businesses who need assistance. Multi-agency raids, especially those involving the NYPD, should be stopped altogether. These raids often target minority-owned businesses, terrorize customers and staff, and are a violent overreaction to alleged infractions. SBS should provide free consultation or walk-throughs so small businesses owners, especially those who are new, can better correct potential violations before they are fined or penalized for them.
QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES
Do you have any solutions to the helicopter traffic that often plagues the neighborhood and others?
I was glad to see our Congressional delegation support a bill to limit helicopters from flying over and around the city and national parks like the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island. Besides pushing for federal regulation, we can also work at a local level to reclaim the use of our piers for our community to have ferries, maritime businesses, or additional recreation space.
This neighborhood has been under construction for decades. Do you have any solution for making construction sites be better neighbors? (limiting hours, monitoring vibrations and hours, disallowing the blocking of sidewalks or streets) (and don’t say call 311)
I support Intro 1353-2019 that will force the Department of Buildings to fine owners for having scaffolding up for more than 6 months, but would push for an even shorter time frame. Many times construction crews will keep up scaffolding even when the development itself is on a months-long pause.
Garbage pickup seems to be at an all-time low. Do you have solutions for better street cleaning? And, many private buildings leave mountains of trash on the sidewalks waiting for pickup. Can this be regulated?
Lower Manhattan had serious sanitation issues even before the Mayor cut the Sanitation Department’s budget by $106 million. We do not have to accept 6 foot tall stacks of trash bags on narrow sidewalks as the norm. I would strongly advocate for an immediate expansion of the Clean Curbs pilot program, so all commercial spaces could receive on-street containers for trash and recycling storage. We can restructure our systems so that waste haulers charge higher prices for garbage, and lower for recycling and compost, which is the reverse of how their tiered pricing models currently operate. I have spent almost every weekend at Tribeca’s green market and am in constant admiration of the dozens, if not hundreds, of people who bring by their compost every week. I am committed to increasing funding for GrowNYC and the Lower East Side Ecology Center so we can expand opportunities for composting at more locations and with more frequency. Our campaign’s first policy white paper focused solely on sanitation and waste streams because we know this is a district-wide issue that can improve our quality of life and the health of our planet. You can read it at www.votemarte.com/sanitation
The NYPD has consistently used its power to close public spaces and amenities, especially during the pandemic. Do you have a proposal for this issue?
Even before the pandemic, NYPD placard abuse severely limited the public’s access to sidewalks, bike lanes, and streets. Now marches and rallies are being used as an excuse for the NYPD to expand their seizure of public space even further. There is no reason for a public park, like City Hall Park, to be closed in a neighborhood that lacks open space to begin with. The pathway between City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse is an important walkway to provide elderly and young pedestrians a safer route than walking on the traffic-heavy Chambers Street. If I were the Councilmember, I would be on the phone with the precinct every day demanding they stop this seizure of public space. Protests and marches are nothing new to New York City, yet the police have used the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as an excuse to further extend their presence in an already heavily policed neighborhood. During actions against the new jail and against the luxury towers in Two Bridges, I have worked with these precincts to protect the public’s right to peacefully assemble and protest. None of these actions ever resulted in protestors getting hurt, or the NYPD retaliating on the community. I am the only candidate that will bring that mediation experience to this Council seat.
We have the great advantage and privilege of being a walking community and therefore are often looking for ways to increase pedestrian safety. What are your thoughts on expanding pedestrian-only streets? Do you have other proposals that would address pedestrian safety?
I support expanding pedestrian-only streets and implementing plans like the FiDi Neighborhood Plan: Make Way For Lower Manhattan. Especially during the peak of this pandemic, we saw car traffic significantly decrease and residents were able to engage with streets in a new way. Streets became park-like, allowing for more recreation space for children and pets.
I often hear about pedestrians almost getting hit by cyclists on the sidewalk, and we can have a win-win solution to reduce the potential for accidents. Many of the streets in Tribeca have speeding cars coming off the West Side highway, or congested traffic approaching the Holland Tunnel. This makes dangerous conditions for cyclists, and incentivizes them to ride on the sidewalk and risk swerving around pedestrians. If we create protected bike lanes that connect to each other, so cyclists never have to risk biking directly next to a car, we will definitely see fewer bikes on the sidewalk as well. We must also create more speed bumps coming off the highway, and I would work with the DOT to help ease the flow of traffic so our streets are safer and air quality is cleaner.
Do you have any new solutions for addressing those people who refuse to go to shelters?
Both nonprofit and City-run shelters need higher standards for safety and quality of life for residents. Many people who refuse to go into shelters do so because they had bad experiences in our shelter system. We must invest in clean and safe shelters, where residents don’t have to fear sharing a bedroom with dangerous roommates or having their possessions stolen. We also must fund long-term supportive housing for people who are battling addiction or have chronic or severe mental illness. Services should be located within shelters or supportive housing to help residents with access to healthcare, job training, and transition to permanent housing. Funding DHS so it can do more check-ins with people experiencing street homelessness will also be essential so that they can build trust faster, as they state in the linked article above. Ending homelessness will take serious investments, but will save the City money in the long-term because of the great expense of the half-measures we have right now, like hotel shelters. It will also create a more humane social safety net to give families a real chance at living in permanent housing.
We would like to hear your thoughts on the status of affordable housing downtown and in our zip codes. What can be done to preserve it? What can you propose to create more below market housing?
As mentioned in other responses, community-based rezoning and conversion from empty office space to apartments are our best tools to create new and preserve existing affordable housing. We have to urge the next mayor to end Mayor de Blasio’s failed Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which has fallen far short of its goal for providing affordable rent to those in the lowest income brackets. These tax breaks will give the City much-needed revenue to build its own affordable housing, especially on public property and in public-private partnerships. Our district has seen opportunities for 100% affordable housing yet misses the mark because our elected officials do not take a strong enough stance on ending our housing and homelessness crisis. Essex Street Crossing was promised to the community as a 100% affordable housing development site, and we got just 50% instead. 5 World Trade Center could easily provide 100% affordable housing to adults and families in moderate to low income brackets, instead of creating just 330 new units that will still be unaffordable to many working people. I have a track record of taking on challenging land use fights, and using consistent education, outreach, and community organizing, we have already seen great victories. In the City Council, we will finally have the power to go much further and create truly affordable housing for families and seniors. I received the unanimous endorsement from the Chinatown Working Group, which is a coalition that is pushing for a community-based rezoning of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. I have also been a vocal advocate for the FiDi Neighborhood Plan.
What solutions for seniors in housing, mobility and access to basic needs can ensure that downtown is a place that residents don’t need to leave as they age?
As the Governor looks to greenlight a process that will allow more office space to housing conversion, we have a great opportunity to help seniors in Lower Manhattan age in place. Many commercial buildings have installed elevators, even if they occupy older buildings. Plumbing and renovations to these existing buildings will still be more cost-effective than demolishing an existing building and constructing something new. A portion of these converted units must be reserved for seniors, especially those living on fixed incomes. I will also pressure the property owners of the neighborhood’s many vacancies to reach out to grocery stores to fill in the space. Not everyone in Tribeca can afford to shop at Whole Foods, and given the growing population of the area, we especially need more access to groceries.
WHITE STREET JAIL
What is your stance on the borough-based jail plan for this location? If you are against it, what do you suggest instead, in order to accommodate the loss of Rikers?
I have been actively organizing against the Mayor’s deeply flawed plan since he announced it. When I co-founded Neighbors United Below Canal, a community group that educates and organizes residents about the new jail planned for Chinatown/Tribeca, it was not politically popular to fight against it. But through years or community meetings, town halls, protests, and leading the largest march in Chinatown in over 60 years, we have achieved historic victories. Our lawsuit proved that the community had been left out of the planning process and that the City had taken too many shortcuts in its review of the impact on public health and the environment. We won in the NY Supreme Court, and while the City is trying to overturn our victory, we will not stop organizing against this plan.
I fully support closing Rikers and not building new jails. The $11 billion that has been earmarked for new jail construction will do nothing to address the root causes of crime. Investing those funds in schools, mental health services, addiction counseling, and family counseling will go much farther in achieving a safer and more just City. If we institute common-sense reform, we can move beyond the era of mass incineration and all its costs and consequences.
PRESERVING HISTORIC DISTRICTS
Threats to historic districts have been hitting very close to home lately in both the proposal for 250 Water in the South Street Seaport Historic District and the SoHo/NoHo rezoning proposal. Both intend to offer affordable housing as an exchange for much higher and bulkier buildings, and dismiss historic district zoning regs. What is your opinion on preserving historic districts?
I am running for City Council to end the divisive rhetoric that pits preservationists against affordable housing advocates. Community-based land use policy can help us preserve the affordable housing we do have by disincentivizing speculation that causes building owners to want to force out rent-stabilized tenants. Rent-stabilized tenants on the Bowery were illegally evicted by their landlord because he wanted to demolish their building to construct luxury housing. I helped rally the community behind them and we forced the landlord to allow them back home — but this situation would never have happened if we had protective zoning in place.
My platform is not just made up of stances on issues like the SoHo and Seaport rezonings, but real action. When the Mayor hosted community engagement sessions that intentionally left out key community voices in SoHo, I worked with artists and loft tenants to host our own town halls. I not only consistently opposed the reckless development of a massive tower with very little affordable housing at 250 Water Street, but have testified at every Community Board and Landmarks hearing, and supported rallies and marches. The Mayor is trying to push through irresponsible and senseless development plans before he’s out of office, but so far community organizing has delayed his efforts. If elected to the City Council, I will champion neighborhood-based plans created by the community instead of real estate interests, and we can stop the overdevelopment and displacement of Lower Manhattan for good.
OTHER CANDIDATES FOR CD1