DECISION 2021: Nine Candidates Vie To Represent Lower Manhattan

There's a rock ’em sock ’em Democratic primary to represent the oldest part of the city — which presents candidates with some thorny street-safety issues.

Candidates to succeed Margaret Chin include (clockwise from top left) Susan Damplo, Jacqueline Gross, Susan Lee, Gigi Li, Jenny Low, Tiffany Winbush, Denny Salas, Chris Marte and Maud Maron.
Candidates to succeed Margaret Chin include (clockwise from top left) Susan Damplo, Jacqueline Gross, Susan Lee, Gigi Li, Jenny Low, Tiffany Winbush, Denny Salas, Chris Marte and Maud Maron.

The Democratic primary for Council District 1 at the bottom of Manhattan — the oldest part of New York City — has a special salience for street-safety activists.

The district has two intense local advocacy campaigns: Transportation Alternatives’s “#FixCanal” initiative, which seeks Department of Transportation attention to the dangerous conditions the major truck route across Manhattan; and the ongoing campaign to rein in placard abuse, the rampant and dangerous illegal parking by government vehicles in the vicinity of official offices. The Financial District Neighborhood Association also has been calling for a “slow streets” pedestrianization program for a while. (The #Bridges4People campaign seeks to create space for cyclists and pedestrians crossing the East River on bridges that terminate in the district, but the focus is on the public space over the adjacent waterway.)

Not only that, but the district is a hotbed of agitation for carveouts from the city’s coming congestion-pricing regime. A strident cadre of downtown car-owners, many enjoying below-market monthly parking in Battery Park City and Southbridge Towers, are demanding resident discounts or even exemptions from the pending congestion-pricing charges — in the face of warnings by downtown resident (and Streetsblog contributor) Charles Komanoff that special treatment will only incite aggrieved motorists outside the district to demand similar preferences, a process that could threaten the hard-won consensus that secured congestion pricing’s passage in the Legislature in 2019.

This drumbeat has not gone unheard by the candidates. With a single exception (see below), every candidate is on record favoring lower congestion tolls for downtowners, despite the fact that the transit-rich, bikeable and walkable district stands to benefit more from congestion pricing than any neighborhood across the city, starting with a down payment of 20 percent lower volumes on the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, according to Komanoff’s traffic modeling.

District 1 has wealthy neighborhoods, including Tribeca and Soho, but also poorer pockets, including Chinatown and the area just below South Street Seaport.

Crashes in District 1 in 2019.
Crashes in District 1 in 2019.

According to Census data, almost 80 percent of households do not have access to a car. Those that do tend to be wealthy, with an average income of $145,720 versus $60,308. More than half (51.4 percent) use transit for commuting, versus 4.6 percent that drive (the rest walk or bike, etc.). And the district has plenty of traffic violence. In 2019 (the last full year for which there are reliable stats), there were 5,289 total crashes, injuring 209 cyclists, 300 pedestrians, and motorists, killing three pedestrians and one motorist. That’s an average of more than 14 every day in very small area.

No wonder, then, that it has a rock ’em sock ’em Democratic primary on its hands this June, as nine candidates vie to succeed its current, term-limited representative, Margaret Chin. (The winner in the heavily Democratic district is the shoo-in for the November election.)

The nine candidates are:

Only five campaign appear to be gaining traction (at least as defined by contributions): Lee, Li, Low, Maron and Marte, who narrowly lost a primary against Chin in 2017.

The campaign to end placard abuse — the subject of repeated City Council attention — is also a signal effort to stop corruption in city government. The (anonymous) individuals behind the muckraking Placard Corruption Twitter account aren’t impressed with the field vying for CD1, however.

The account holders called it “surprising and disappointing that the candidates have shown so little leadership so far to address the corruption literally overrunning the streets of the district they hope to represent.

“The candidates have hardly even mentioned placard corruption, despite its overwhelming impact on the different neighborhoods covered by the district,” the account holders added — although they did acknowledge that some candidates had recently held forth on the topic in interviews with the Tribeca Citizen. 

They ticked off a litany of dangers and indignities that placard abuse brings to our downtown:

  • Chinatown businesses that struggle to get deliveries because of all the illegally parked personal vehicles, even though the area is a designated “No Permit Area.” 
  • Streets in Battery Park City that have become permanent parking lots for illegally parked cars. 
  • Streets and sidewalks throughout the Financial District jammed with illegally parked cars.
  • Illegally parked cars creating hazards by blocking fire hydrants, bicycle lanes, and intersection sightlines.
  • Lost revenue from parking meters and summonses that could fund substantial neighborhood improvements.

During a recent TA online forum on the district — and in interviews with Streetsblog — candidates held forth on placard abuse and the effort to fix Canal Street.

A slide from transportation Alternatives's "Fix Canal" campaign.
A slide from Transportation Alternatives’s “Fix Canal” campaign.

Lee criticized the execution of the city’s open restaurants initiative, saying that it needs to have guidelines to curb excesses because “it is literally like Mardi Gras here on the weekends” and makes it difficult for people with mobility issues or strollers to get around. She is for pedestrianizing the Financial District and called for more enforcement against vehicle encroachment in bike lanes but said that some cyclists don’t obey traffic rules so “it has to go both ways.”

“We need to cut down on the number of placards and digitize them,” she said, referring to police vehicles at 1 Police Plaza blocking a bike lane there and obstructing Park Row and Chatham Square. “There are some fake ones. And we need to protect the traffic cops who enforce it.”

Gigi Li
Gigi Li

Li seems well positioned to pick up Chin’s mantle as a centrist. She thinks the neighborhood needs more protected bike lanes and a “comprehensive plan” to connect them into a network, more accessibility for pedestrians and seniors, in the form of curb cuts and and visibility at intersections, new parking regulations that create more space for deliveries but also regulations for e-bikes and e-scooters that keep them off sidewalks, which she identified as a concern of residents.

Li spoke directly to placard abuse in the area, calling for more enforcement against abuse and saying there were an “excessive” amount of placards given out by the city, state and federal governments that needs a “complete look” and clarification of who is getting them and why. She said she is a supporter of open streets and open dining but said that the area “needs to find a balance” for the “new normal” post-pandemic. In particular, she said the city needs to have stricter enforcement of outdoor dining set ups, because “some structures are vacant.” Moreover, she said that she has been “a broken record” on the subject of police cars on sidewalks, especially at the Fifth Precinct, a contender for Streetsblog’s “March (Parking) Madness” crown this year. She also said that she had confronted Police Commissioner Dermot Shea about the abuse of parking at 1 Police Plaza, but wasn’t sure that he would follow through on the recommendations. 

Jenny Low
Jenny Low

Low recounted for Streetsblog her experience as a survivor of traffic violence. In 2018, she was hit by a car driver as she was crossing Canal at the Bowery and propelled 20 feet. She spent two weeks in the ICU and two months in the hospital and rehab.

“I’m a driver, biker, walker, public transit user — people’s safety is, as a lifelong Manhattanite, is the most important thing for me,” she said.

Low also rued the police parking situation at Police HQ and called for enforcement. The parking there, she said, is “for businesses,” and should not be abused by “outsiders.” She also said that she supports closing some streets on weekends to help small businesses recover from the pandemic. As a former banker, she sounded the most pro-business notes of the candidates to whom Streesblog spoke.

Christopher Marte
Christopher Marte

Marte told Streetsblog that he finds Canal Street “really dangerous” and supports plans to make the Financial District “really walkable.” But he steered the conversation toward the subject he knew best, touting his credentials as a progressive who has been fighting oversized development in the community and, in particular, the city’s plan to build a new jail in Chinatown. He said feeder streets contribute to the Canal Street mess and how placard parking corrupting is really cannibalizing the street space in the area away from people who walk and commute and over to people who park their cars illegally.

Maron has drawn fire from Black colleagues because of stances toward public education that they deemed racially insensitive. Maron couches her street-safety positions as part of a more general push for safety. A veteran of the local Community Board 2, she said called for “smart, sensible, data-driven curbside uses” and said that she recognized that in her packed downtown district placard abuse is rampant and that it is “not a sensible use to have free and heavily subsidized parking for cars.” But she also said that while she understands that there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of bike lanes in Lower Manhattan, she also understands the perspective of older residents “being nervous about being slammed into by a 20-something biker” — something that literally almost never happens.

Maud Maron
Maud Maron

Advocates who saw the candidates speak at a recent online TA Council district forum gave mixed reviews to the candidates’ positions on Canal Street.

Some were intrigued by Salas’s plan for superblocks —pedestrianized areas that erase the street grid in favor of slow zones — but expressed concern that Canal’s safety issues would get short shrift in the scheme. Salas’s emphasis on increased signage did not strike them as a panacea for Canal because drivers ignore signs.

Others found Lee’s plan to model Canal Street after Houston Street — with a median to help pedestrians cross — inadequate.

“Building more car infrastructure like this (if there were no cars, there would be no medians) and requiring pedestrians to take two light cycles to cross is hostile to pedestrians,” one said. “Walking on Houston Street immediately shows how this would not help the issue much on Canal Street. The pollution from all the cars is incredibly high and cars are constantly blocking the crosswalks.

Denny Salas
Denny Salas

Low expressed concern during the panel about unintended consequences on the side streets and said she would prefer a comprehensive plan with full input from the community and the residents which triggered activists, who said that “tactics like these have been used time and time again to delay projects and water them down. The 14th Street busway had similar opposition due to changes to the side-street traffic patterns (that ended up not materializing in any meaningful way) and a ‘lack of community input.’ The city has been studying this area for over a decade, and it is time to act!”

Marte drew high marks from activists for his support of expanded sidewalks, bike lanes, and dedicated delivery times, but one faulted what they called Marte’s “defeatist attitude” that Canal Street will always be busy because it connects the city to New Jersey (via the Holland Tunnel) and Brooklyn (via the Manhattan Bridge). “People should be coming to CD1, not through it,” the activist said. “New York City could design its street in such a way that all thru traffic must go around the island and not through it. “

Tiffany Winbush
Tiffany Winbush

Winbush’s take on Canal was “expand the sidewalks” in order to use sidewalk space to support pedestrians and small businesses, which gained kudos for being easy and straightforward. Winbush also deflected the idea of congestion-pricing carveouts for district residents — an issue that looms large in future Council deliberations. Here’s her Q&A on congestion pricing last month in Tribeca Citizen:

As councilmember will you urge the MTA and the governor to put congestion pricing in place? Would you include carve-outs for downtown residents or other groups?
While it will take some getting used to, congestion pricing is needed to help decrease the number of vehicles that come in and out of our district. One could argue that with the pandemic, traffic is already down and congestion pricing is no longer needed. But that won’t last always. We need to prepare now, when traffic is lighter. I’d urge the MTA and the governor to implement congestion pricing now.

One thing is clear: Whoever wins the primary — and given the new ranked-choice voting system, we might not know for a while after the election — will have quite a lively time dealing with the demands of activists and, more important, the safety needs of a diverse district.