The New York City Council serves a critical function. It works with the mayor to decide how to allocate more than $80 billion in the City budget each year. Council members also pass dozens of bills, shape major land-use proposals, and monitor City agencies to hold them accountable to the taxpaying public.
On September 12, Roosevelt Island’s City Council member, Ben Kallos, will face two challengers in the Democratic Primary election: community organizer and progressive, Patrick Bobilin, as well as long time organizer and activist Gwen Goodwin.
Last week, City & State magazine ranked Kallos as the fourth best council member in the City, praising his work as chair of the Committee on Government Operations to push for greater transparency. Kallos himself lists four Island-related “major victories,” including adding 90 full-day pre-K seats on Roosevelt Island, investing $1 million in the green roof at PS/IS 217, securing a new 50-year agreement for the Tram, and years of advocating for the new ferry service to the Island. “I grew up on the East Side and went to school with kids from Roosevelt Island, and grew up playing on Roosevelt Island,” says Kallos. He believes he understands who we are, and what this community is about, “I make sure we work with the residents to preserve the small town feel that we have, and should always have.”
Goodwin, who was rated one of the “100 Women that Shape Our City” in a 2004 Daily News article, made unsuccessful bids for the City Council in 2009 and 2013. For major accomplishments, she cites saving PS 109 from demolition; arranging free mini-vacations in Cape May for firefighters and other 9/11 first responders; getting law firm Davis, Polk, and Wardwell to work, pro bono, to sue the MTA for environmental racism in response to asthma rates around the 100th Street bus depot; and getting the gas turned back on at East Harlem’s public housing complex, Lexington Houses, in August of 2013, after it had been off for two months. “I have more experience than either one of these guys,” Goodwin says of her competitors.
Bobilin, a relative newcomer on the scene, moved to the district in 2016. He has been a public school teacher, has organized with Black Lives Matter, and has marched for reproductive rights, public schools, and against LGBT discrimination.
When asked about the Island’s housing situation, Goodwin criticized “the hemorrhaging of our affordable housing.”
“[The Island] lost a ton under our current council member,” she said. “That’s a huge thing for me.” She says she would work to protect affordable housing. “I am an activist, I move things forward.”
Kallos, however, says he has advocated with NYC Housing Preservation and Development to preserve affordable housing on Roosevelt Island, and points out that he won two rent freezes for rent-stabilized tenants. He also cites his annual funding for Tenants & Neighbors that provides technical and legal support for tenants in affordable housing. He says, “Folks have found a very strong working relationship with our office. We’ve been able to work with islanders on many different issues.” Kallos is advocating with various governmental agencies, as well as Hudson/Related, to ensure that new buildings have a percentage of affordable housing.
Bobilin says he’d like to see new requirements for affordable housing. “We are not creating any kind of affordability on Roosevelt Island. It’s clear to me that the Democratic Party needs new people with new ideas. With regard to affordable housing, I would make any planned development subject to my campaign proposals of vacancy taxes, infrastructure taxes, and floor-to-floor height limits, to keep developers from creating less dense, higher-priced units in the future. I would also fight for rent freezes and an overall affordability plan to subsidize lower-income New Yorkers, giving a tax rebate for anyone paying over 35 percent of their income on housing costs.”
On August 16, Manhattan Neighborhood Network aired a debate between the candidates, moderated by Islander Joyce Short.
On transportation, Kallos says, “When I got elected, the East Side and Roosevelt Island were transit deserts. We got the Second Avenue subway. Now I am proud to have helped secure a stop on Roosevelt Island as part of the NYC Ferry system. I look forward to more collaboration with RIOC to ensure ferry service kicks off on time, runs properly, and serves residents on the Island.” He says he is working to initiate a ferry transfer so riders can transfer to an MTA subway or bus on one fare.
Kallos says his focus goes beyond traditional methods of transportation, and believes in “exploring creative options for creating transportation on and off the Island.” For example, he lists restoring the Queensboro Bridge elevator as something he is thinking about.
Acknowledging that our 10044 zip code is the most frequently requested, he has had ongoing meeting with Citibike, regarding getting service here.
Kallos also working with Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation President Susan Rosenthal to support her application to fund a bike-only bridge so cyclists don’t have to use the helix.
Goodwin also advocates for a more streamlined transit transfer. She said, “I don’t agree with [former New York City Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani about anything – besides ‘one city, one fare.’”
“Transportation reform is urgent on the Island as F train service seems to be suffering every other weekend lately,” said Bobilin, “and the Tram has faced regular outages.” Noting that the N,R,W, and E lines run past the Island, Bobilin says, “With the influx of students coming to Cornell Tech and the rapidly increasing population, we should, as elected officials, explore how we can add at least one more stop to the southern part of the Island. And as I say whenever I get the chance, we need expanded bus service.”
Goodwin questions whether Cornell Tech is contributing enough to Roosevelt Island. To Cornell Tech, Goodwin says, “If you’re going to come to someone’s house, pay your share.” She cites some of their tenants, Citi, for example, and questions why this hasn’t been a more lucrative deal for the Island. “The Island has needs that must be considered. Maybe Kallos could have done better, had he pushed harder,” adding that “no one I’ve spoken to is happy with the deal.”
Kallos says he has worked to ensure Cornell NYC Tech construction was done by barge, stayed on track, and did not harm the Island. He also has worked with Cornell Tech to develop partnerships with PS/IS 217 and the Roosevelt Island Senior Center.
“The best solution I have for retail vacancies comes from Paul Calendrillo’s deal with his former landlord: pay some small amount of rent for the storefront, fix it up and make it attractive, use it on your own with a month to month lease (as an artist and curator, art galleries are my favorite solution), let it be a working advertisement for rental of the space,” says Bobilin.
“Operators like Hudson-Related must be held responsible for maintaining business on Roosevelt Island. To be frank, the Island doesn’t even have a hardware store, and yet it has vacant storefronts and art galleries. Clearly there is some mismanagement to be accounted for, but there are also some great opportunities to expand retail and employment opportunities for small businesses on the Island.”