Borough President Markowitz got feisty during his annual end-of-year sitdown with Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman — but he saved his venom for “czar” Mayor Bloomberg’s quest to “gut” and “starve” his office of funding.
“I have enormous respect for the mayor — and I expect him to show me respect as well,” Markowitz told The Brooklyn Paper. “And respect comes in many forms. … We are partners in government, and you don’t starve us. That’s not the way you treat someone you respect.”
Markowitz’s broadside against the mayor was one of the highlights of a broad-ranging interview that touched on the Beep’s beloved, but stalled, Atlantic Yards project; ongoing development plans for Coney Island; the current economic climate; and even his plan for a lottery — did he say lottery? — to help the Metropolitan Transportation Authority avoid putting tolls on the East River bridges.
You can hear the unedited interview by clicking here or simply enjoy this unedited transcript:
Gersh Kuntzman: It’s nice to see you. Thanks for doing this. It doesn’t feel like a year-in-review issue without the interview. Four years in a row. People like it.
Marty Markowitz: I hope they do. They may not agree with every one of my responses, but I’m happy they read it. At least I know that it’s reported accurately [because of the unedited transcript].
GK: So I would like to start with a general overview question: What were the three best things to happen to Brooklyn this year?
MM: Barack Obama and the overwhelming support that the borough gave to Barack Obama.
MM: It’s a new hope for America [to have] a president that will be far more urban oriented. Already his picks — the treasury secretary and the HUD secretary, both from Brooklyn. And maybe more.
GK: Are you hinting at something?
MM: No, no, no! I’m very happy here. But it gives us the hope that together with the House and Senate, Sen. Schumer’s leadership, that we have a chance for New York to receive its fair share of federal resources which will help us tremendously and help us turn around the economy. Starrett City, the largest affordable housing project in the country, was under great threat to have its affordability challenged, and because of the collective action of Sen. Schumer, myself and many other elected officials who came together with no division… there is no doubt in my mind that Starrett City will keep its affordability for years to come. … LICH [Long Island College Hospital] and the threat of LICH closing — while it’s not yet resolved, at least we deterred the closing of a lot of their services and put the heat on the state to make sure that LICH stays as a full-service hospital for the growing community. And I think some of the new corporate entities, Weil-Gotshal, for example, a major law firm. It represents to me, and why I pitched them, on the fact that Brooklyn should be a center of law, with the courts and more lawyers per square inch on Court Street. There is a way to build on that and make the court street corridor a center for law firms to think about Brooklyn before Jersey City. We are competitive. We are on a separate grid. We have the ambiance and the amenities. As our office buildings go up, and they are, more and more space is renovated, like at 16 Court Street with Mark Green’s brother. But besides the law industry, job number 1 in 2009 is creating jobs. Uniworld, which is the largest African-American advertising agencies, and that’s a very well respected, nationally celebrated advertising agency, [moved to Brooklyn] and I’m delighted. It’s the start of another possibility of ethnic oriented advertising agencies in Brooklyn. It goes hand in hand with the first advertising high school in Brooklyn. That was my baby. It started this fall. El Diario already moved here. And with the promise of new hotels in the Downtown area, at City Point on the Fulton Mall, it’s very exciting times. And it couldn’t come soon enough because of the great need in 2009 to keep people working. … And, you should know, we are very aggressively working with the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation to move them here, in this building.
GK: In Borough Hall?
MM: It’s that important, Gersh. The office of Borough President and the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation job one is creating jobs. To be able to work with that fine organization, in a partnership. Years ago, they were here and then they weren’t here. But we’d love to have them here.
GK: Would there be actual coordination?
MM: On the subject of economic development, we’ll have a wonderful working relationship and be under one roof. … These days, you have to pool resources together.
GK: Three things that didn’t do so well?
MM: The economy in this last half of the year. As much as I call it a “Republic of Brooklyn,” we are still very much part of New York City. There is no question that our unemployment is up. And it’s not a good thing. And when retail sales are off, it hurts our local mom and pop stores — and our local stores are the backbone of this borough and always will be. I don’t care what kind of chain stores come in — and it’s good that they’re here — but the backbone is those individual stores up and down our local streets. When they’re hurting, we’re hurting. Vacancies are up. I’m hoping that once President Obama begins, there will be resources there to provide the kind of help to entrepreneurs create good retail opportunities and business. The MTA cuts are horrible. The possibility of tolling our bridges is discriminatory to our borough. It puts the shortfall on the backs of brooklynites.
GK: What should the MTA do?
MM: We’ve put forward a fair and balanced plan. Besides the reinstatement of the commuter tax, I’ve called for an increases in gasoline tax in the MTA region. Not just New York drivers, but drivers throughout the region. Those of us who own cars pay a surcharge on our car registration fee — only in New York City. I’ve proposed extending that fee to the entire MTA region. It’s only fair because they use our buses and subways and this is a shared problem. And I’ve said that we should look into the possibility of a lottery. And I know that people don’t like gambling, but people gamble. You may not like it personally, but people are going to gamble.
GK: We already have a lottery.
MM: We do. I’m saying a Monday lottery dedicated to the MTA. Public transportation is the economic lifeblood of New York City for all of us, even those like me who have a car. The subway is faster to Midtown, certainly. And for jobs, it is necessary for the subway to be maintained at the highest level. We all agree.
GK: On the lottery, have you actually…
MM: We have. We have submitted it to the MTA and the legislative leaders.
GK: One day of the state lottery would be dedicated to the MTA?
MM: Let them work out the numbers.
GK: The economy if affecting development, especially here in Downtown Brooklyn. What are you seeing out there?
MM: Getting credit is very difficult, but construction costs are beginning to come down. … When I look at Fourth Avenue, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that not everything is selling out. It’s also true on Flatbush Avenue and it’s also true on Eastern Parkway at the Richard Meier building and I’m sure we can look at other examples. Because of the credit market, and because people are concerned about their jobs, to make major investments when you’re not sure, there’s some hesitation.
GK: That’s true of individuals. But it’s true about developers, too. We have developers who haven’t started projects.
MM: We saw that with the Clarett Group on Court Street, as an example. And Atlantic Yards, though the lawsuits have prevented it. Those people who want to stop it did not know the economy was going to turn. They got lucky that the economy turned. Had it not been for the law cases, had it just been starting now, there still would be a problem in terms of the credit market. It has slowed down dramatically.
GK: Forest City Enterprises CEO Charles Ratner said the other day that after the lawsuits are settled, he would still have to wait and see where he’s at. How did you feel about that?
MM: I am a tremendous supporter. We need Atlantic Yards more this year coming than we needed it at any time before. It will be a generator of jobs, both during the construction phase and after. And having an arena and a national team is a great selling point to corporations that are looking to either relocate or expand. Basketball has become the sport of corporate — corporate sport. The men and women that work for corporations eagerly look forward to going to games and people bring clients there. So having an arena and a national team would be an unbelievable catalyst for jobs and new companies coming and staying in Brooklyn — my humble opinion! And the affordable housing that will come with it — though it will take longer now — is still job number 1 1/2 so we can continue to live here. We still significantly lack affordable housing. So of course I’m not happy to hear what Mr. Ratner said in Cleveland. It’s a tough time for everyone. But I’m hoping once the president sets his policies and the banking industry starts churning out again and investments begin to be made, Atlantic Yards can get back on track and we can have the shovel in the ground. I can’t tell you when.
GK: Is there any part of you that says, “Maybe if this project had been done differently. A little smaller. Gone through a ULURP [city land-use review process] rather than a state process.” Are there any regrets on that level that this could have been done by now?
MM: A lot of the people that expressed their opposition do not want an arena. They don’t want the traffic. They don’t want the people. And there’s the other group that doesn’t want the apartment building because it will cast shadows. The bulk is too much. The density is too much. I have to tell you, when it was first proposed, attempts were made by me and my office to reach out, but the immediate response was, “We don’t want it. Shove it! How many times do we have to tell you, Mr. Markowitz, we don’t want it. We don’t the buildings. We don’t want the arena. We don’t want it.” And when you have folks that say an absolute no. Not, “Maybe we’ll take some housing, six stories high, eight stories high, but we don’t want the arena.” Obviously, I wanted it all.
GK: But the density is an issue. You make it sound like — this would be the densest Census tract in the country.
MM: You know what? There are those that would disagree with you on that. I don’t have my statistics with me. But what I can say is that one of the guiding principals of Atlantic Yards was to maximize the units of affordable housing. If the opponents was willing to say — I don’t want them to say — “You know what, forget about the affordable housing, make it all market rents or market coops, there is no doubt in my mind that the bulkiness would have been significantly less. But it was our demand, you can blame me indirectly and others, as a holy grail of Atlantic Yards, that there must be a maximum affordability of housing. If it was up to me, it would be 75 percent. We’ll see what the future brings. I am confident that it is going to happen. I really am. I really am. I was hoping it would have happened in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, so if it’s 2011, it’s 2011, as long as I know it’s on track.
GK: Is it on track?
MM: I hear that. The train is at the station. It’s moving very slowly. We have to see what the future brings. … It was always going to be over the course of 12 years or 16 years.
GK: Let me switch gears to Coney Island. Where are you on this?
MM: The Municipal Art Society has aided immeasurably. They came in the other day and they have some wonderful, dynamic ideas. They straddle what the mayor wants to do and they have been in touch with Joe Sitt as well. My vision is clear: Number 1: the amusement area must be protected. Number 2: we have to make the amusement area as large as possible. If the city needs to purchase land, it should purchase land to preserve it. Now, Joe Sitt wants to be part of that vision. I respect him. He’s a good businessperson. He lives here. He’s a businessman! His job number 1 is to make money. I understand that. But it’s important that the amusement area be protected. The land is more valuable for residential than it is for amusements and once you allow residential in the amusement area, coney island is done. … If the vision is there, it could become the real entertainment center of Brooklyn. And that means movie theaters, a live theater, a trade center. I’d like to see a hotel there. If you build amusements and rides indoors to make a year-round place instead of just the summer, than Coney Island becomes a real destination. We have something that a lot of places don’t have: we have a brand.
GK: The city plan to buy up land would cost more than $150 million. How can we do that now?
MM: Where is the money going to come from? It’s a good question. Even though we’re in tight economic times, money is still being spent and you have to have priorities. So, therefore, that’s what the mayor and the city council, with borough presidents playing a role in terms of advocacy. Is an investment in Coney Island worthwhile in terms of the investment level and what we expect in return. I suspect the answer is yes, because there’s only one Coney Island. There is only one amusement area in the entire city and the fact that the aquarium desperately needs expansion. I think we have a natural resource there that cries out for investment that will pay off richly for New York in the years to come. I’m not a businessman, but I do know that you need to spend money to make money.
GK: You’re involved in a lot of things. So why is the New York Post calling for the borough presidents to be abolished?
MM: The Post told me that they think borough presidents are redundant. That was their term. So I went up to the Post a few weeks ago. I asked to go up there to explain why I feel that borough presidents are in a superb position to advocate for the borough and where we add to the responsiveness of city government. And that the meager dollars that are put into these offices in terms of services is probably one of the best bargains in any aspect of city or state. I don’t know if I persuaded them, I doubt it, but at least they were courteous enough to hear me out, challenge me at times. I think they’re dead wrong. They’ve had this opinion about getting rid of borough presidents for many years, especially since the charter was revised. And I’m the first to say that under the city charter today, borough presidents, a lot of their substantive powers were removed, for sure. And there is no doubt that we can be a punching bag for an editorial board of a newspaper or for a mayor who frankly looks at borough presidents as an unwanted dependent.
GK: Are you talking about this mayor?
MM: Whether it is this mayor or previous mayors. I happen to respect Michael Bloomberg an awful lot, but having said that, budgets that we get allocated do not show that respect. That’s the best way to put it.
GK: He just cut your discretionary budget tremendously.
MM: That plus operating budget and staff. We’ve had quite a few layoffs here.
GK: How many?
MM: We’ve already lost eight to 10 people. And if budget cuts go through, it would be another eight to 10. You can die by a 1,000 cuts rather than seek a charter revision to eliminate borough presidents. The way to do it is just gut them. Give them no money so they can’t do anything. And the less they do, the greater justification you have to eliminate them. It’s very simple. It’s a beautifully conceived plan. I’m not saying that’s their plan, but who knows? There is an objective, perhaps by this mayor, to eliminate the borough presidency. If not by charter, than to totally minimize it by gutting it. Now, whether we disagree or agree, Gersh, I work as hard as I am capable of doing. Every day of my life and every night. I could never see myself sitting here not doing anything. There is only so much private money I can raise to get things done. And when I raise private money, I get slapped by New York Post, the Daily News or you. But the truth is that without that private money, based on what [the city] gives us to spend, there is no money here.
GK: I was going to segue into that —
MM: And no matter what you want to do, it costs money! The Book Fair, which I think is a great addition to life in Brooklyn … costs money. It’s not free. We have to pay for everything. Where does that money come from? So it forces us to have to get on phones to raise that money to pay for it. We have no choice because we are not being given adequate funds to do things on behalf of Brooklyn, so we have to raise private money.
GK: That’s understandable, but the question that my paper raised is that the corporations that you’re doing business with for this fundraising are corporations that the borough does business with. Forest City Ratner is a company that you are associated with.
MM: Obviously, the people that are going to provide whatever level of resources are those that will benefit if it benefits Brooklynites. And they see that it benefits them. National Grid is a big contributor because they see that a flourishing Brooklyn is good for them.
GK: But if National Grid wanted to build a power plant in Brooklyn, you would be unable to take a position because you’ve been taking their money. That’s the position you’re in with Forest City.
MM: Not at all. My position on Forest City has been from the get-go, I love it. I support it. I’m the one who suggested it, at least as far as the team and the arena. So I don’t see the slightest conflict. Forest City Ratner gives money to major art groups around this city and many groups right here in Brooklyn. The concerts are a tax-exempt 501(c)3. I do not make fiscal decisions. I’m not an officer. I think it’s great that he and other corporations support [Markowitz’s] Best of Brooklyn [non-profit]. It’s a positive thing. It allows the office of borough president to be relevant in the lives of Brooklynites. And listen, I do not want to do nothing. The whole point of being in this job is to get things done! I am sure Michael Bloomberg wakes up every day and thinks, “What can I do to do something for New York.” I wake up every day and say, “What can I do for Brooklyn?” This has been my dream job. But my good looks will only get me so far. I still need money to get things done. Mayor Bloomberg, if he was not a billionaire, if he had no money to run New York City, I don’t care how brilliant he is, he wouldn’t be able to achieve a damn thing, without resour4ces and staff. That’s true for me, too. I need resources and staff. Cuts should be fair and balanced. When you have a little staff, compared to a big agency of 5,000 people. If they have to lose 200, it’s a different compared to an office that goes from 73 to 50. And that includes cleaners! So we’re going to fight because the job of borough president is the only one that truly reflects the entire borough. A mayor has to have the holistic view of the entire city. My job, as borough president, is to think about the life of the whole borough and how do I get the mayor and his people to focus on our problems. If anything, rather than eliminate it, the job should be strengthened. They should give us a primary role in education. They should have borough presidents working with the Economic Development Corporation to bring jobs to the borough. Give us some substantive work to do as partners in government with the funding and staff that enables us to really flourish. We know our turf better than they know it!
GK: I’m sensing from your tone that you’re concerned that the mayor is not on board with you on this.
MM: I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that there is no question that the last two years have not been good years in terms of funding borough presidents. And if you look at the projections from the office of management and budget, you can clearly see what they have planned for borough presidents. And that is a significant reduction of all borough presidents from today through 2011. And I have to say, whoa, who did this? The office of management and budget is an agency of the mayor. So someone over there had to say, you know what? Do I feel agitated, I do indeed.
GK: You have a good relationship with the mayor.
MM: I do, but the relationship has to be both ways. There has to be respect both ways. I have enormous respect for the mayor and I expect him to show me respect as well. And respect comes in many different forms. Respect means respect the work that I do and the work of borough presidents. We are partners in government. And you don’t starve us. That’s not the way you treat someone you respect and that’s how I feel. We have a job to do. We could be a very effective advocate for Brooklyn and we have been.
GK: You say they’re trying to gut your office, but you are running for re-election. Why do that if you think the office can’t be effective?
MM: Because I’m going to do everything I can to fight against those cuts to ensure that borough presidents’ offices are appropriately staffed. Now, everyone has to take a cut. We’ve taken two already. We need cops. We need firefighters. But it is unfair the cuts they have dumped on borough presidents. And that is because we are not involved in the budget process by vote. I’d like to see that in the charter revision process. The borough presidents need to be part of that process by vote. And there needs to be a dedicated funding stream. We have that for capital money, by formula. Not at the whim of the mayor and city council. If the mayor’s central staff is going to be cut by seven percent. And the agencies. And the city council central staff. And individual members are all going to sustain that percentage than, you know what?, so too will borough presidents. I suspect that’s not what’s happening.
GK: So if the trend continues, what will you do in a third term?
MM: I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to be in semi-retirement. I’m still young. Well, relatively young. I will continue to advocate strongly to make sure the borough presidents are funded in a way that allows us to serve our residents with relevancy as opposed to redundancy. And the Post builds a story. Sure, they’re celebrating that we’ll have less funds. And it proves their point that we’re redundant. It fulfills what they think of these offices. But if you gave these offices more resources and staff, we would be able to do incredible things because we’re closer to the constituency. We can make government more responsive. I know that from the work we do here. We break through the bureaucracy.
GK: Don’t the city agencies have borough commissioners? Is that not how the mayor keeps in touch with the boroughs?
MM: That’s true, but the borough commissioners report to the commissioner of that department, who reports to the mayor. But I don’t report to the mayor. I can say things and advocate things that somebody who is a subordinate can not say. And the people put me here and in order to have a balanced government you need more voices, not less voices. This is not a czar. It’s a mayor elected by the people and there are five borough presidents and a comptroller and a public advocate who have a right to add their voices in the discourse of the city. No mayor can be right all the time. Nor is a borough president. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but by having our input and experience and our knowledge, we add immeasurably to making government relevant.
GK: Couldn’t you do that as, say, the equivalent of a borough public advocate?
MM: It can not be. It minimizes what this job is. We’re not just a public advocate. We create public discourse. We come up with development ideas. We pitch businesses. And we’re independent! We have a right to set the course that we see for our borough. … We can not be a true partner in government unless we have the funding and the staff to serve the people of Brooklyn.
GK: What is the thing you can’t do?
MM: We need development staff. If we don’t have planners, we can’t plan. We can’t offer development ideas. If I lose people, even someone who writes a speech for me, my role in terms of the public will be severely hurt because then I don’t have messages to share, to inspire. Some of it is symbolic as well. It’s about making people feel good about their borough. Some of the things that we’ve done: affordable housing that has been built on our watch, with money from our capital budget. And we know where it should go because we know the players. … That Trader Joe’s, I worked my tush off to get that. That’s pitching. There’s an essential job of a borough president that’s more than just an advocate.