Council Candidates at Fort Greene Forum Agree: Don’t Touch Parking

If you were hoping for inspiring leadership from the City Council on transportation issues after the next election, you may want to look somewhere other than District 35, which covers the neighborhoods just east of downtown Brooklyn. Two-thirds of households in the district are car-free, according to the 2000 Census. But while most candidates supported traffic calming improvements at a forum last night, they were unanimous in their opposition to removing on-street parking spaces, and many were reluctant to support policy changes that would cut down on driving in the district.

District 35 candidates, from left, Olanike Alabi, Laurie Cumbo, Ede Fox, Frank “Richard” Hurley, and Jelani Mashariki at last night’s forum. Photo: Stephen Miller

The seat, representing Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, is currently held by Letitia James, who is running for public advocate. Candidates Olanike Alabi, Laurie Cumbo, Ede Fox, Frank “Richard” Hurley, and Jelani Mashariki attended the forum, sponsored by the Brooklyn Movement Center, Coalition for the Improvement of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership, the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and Transportation Alternatives.

In response to a question from TA deputy director Noah Budnick about traffic calming and complete streets on Atlantic Avenue, Fox said that she supports street design that makes it easier to cross the major roadway and enforcement that cuts down on speeding, singling out dollar van drivers as particularly reckless in Prospect Heights. She also raised concerns about cycling, which she supports, saying that more cyclists need to follow the rules of the road. “We have some streets that are quite narrow. We have quite a lot of bicycle lanes on them, and I see some difficulty between bicyclists and drivers and walkers,” Fox said.

Hurley also supported pedestrian islands on Atlantic Avenue, while Alabi cited the need for more speed humps and curb extensions, praising the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council’s effort to secure a Slow Zone for its neighborhood.

The candidates had a variety of suggestions to improve bus and subway service. Fox urged the MTA to completely restore service that was cut in 2010, keep fares from rising, improve frequencies on the A and C trains, and roll out Bus Time (the program is scheduled to expand citywide by April). Fox supported bus rapid transit as an option to expand capacity. “Making new train lines is really not efficient,” she said. “BRT is something that can be done easily, quickly, and very cheaply.”

Mashariki said that subway station booths needed to be staffed to assist riders looking to add money to their MetroCards, while Alabi said the MTA deserves credit for partial restorations of service cuts. She also wanted to see subway station renovations and extended accordion buses on routes serving Myrtle Avenue and Fulton Street.

Budnick also asked the candidates if they support the expansion of bike-share. “Yes, I like the Citi Bike, just don’t take our parking spots,” Mashariki said, to a round of applause from the audience. The other candidates all agreed with this position, except for Hurley, who opposed bike-share expansion. “The bikes are an inconvenience to everyone. They should be at parks and playgrounds,” Hurley said. “Until they do that, I’m not supporting it,” he told a voter after the forum.

Hurley was also skeptical of pedestrian plazas, claiming that by closing a block to cars, plazas inhibit emergency response. He also said they do not benefit neighborhood residents and instead primarily help businesses. “It’s not for the people who live around there,” he told Streetsblog. “When I drove into Times Square and I first saw that pedestrian plaza, I went, ‘What the hell?’”

Later in the forum, Cumbo brought up Hurley’s opposition to plazas. “I happen to be in favor of the plazas,” she said. While she raised concerns about how well cleaning staff are paid by the plaza maintenance partners, Cumbo said that plazas could serve as locations for community board meetings. In Jackson Heights, Queens CB 3 has hosted a meeting in a public plaza.

On the topic of community boards, Alabi said that term limits for board members should be considered, while Mashariki came out in favor of directly elected board members, and Cumbo said that student leadership from colleges and universities should be included on community boards.

After the forum, Streetsblog asked Alabi, Cumbo, and Fox if they support continued reduction or elimination of parking requirements. Last year, the city cut Downtown Brooklyn parking mandates in half, but has not pursued other major changes.

“It’s a case-by-case issue. We have a lack of parking in this district, so I would not support it for this district,” Alabi said. Cumbo said her initial reaction was not to support the elimination or reduction of parking minimums, but that she would need to do more research on the issue.

“We of course want to encourage people to use mass transit,” Fox said, though she did not support eliminating or reducing parking requirements. She believes that families or older residents moving into new apartments might also own cars and could exacerbate the existing on-street parking crunch if  they don’t have off-street parking. “It may not make the most sense to get rid of those parking requirements,” she said.

Fox and Cumbo were also hesitant to embrace congestion pricing or bridge tolls. “I’m always a person that looks for incentives to change behavior, not fees and fines to change behavior,” Fox told Streetsblog, using her mother as an example of someone who has difficulty using the subway and drives to Manhattan because there is no bus service.

“There are other ways that we can decrease the amount of vehicles in the city, and I don’t know pricing, or another fine, or another fee, is necessarily the way to go,” Cumbo said, suggesting carpooling as an alternative.