City Council Candidates Address Downtown Issues in Local Forum

The five candidates appearing at the New Downtown Dems forum, from left: Maud Maron, Jenny Low, Tiffany Winbush, Christopher Marte and Gigi Li. Screenshots via The Tribeca Trib

Jan. 28, 2021

In a critical race for Lower Manhattan that has yet to capture the attention of many voters, five candidates vying to represent Downtown in the City Council faced off on Sunday, Jan. 24, in a virtual forum, sponsored by the New Downtown Dems

All but one of the contenders in the June 22 Council District 1 primary, community activist Christopher Marte, is seeking the office for the first time. In a bruising contest, Marte narrowly lost his bid four years ago to unseat the now outgoing incumbent, Margaret Chin. The other hopefuls include: GiGi Li, Chin’s current chief of staff; Jenny Low, director of the Community Engagement Division for Council Speaker Corey Johnson; Maud Maron, a public defender and member of the District 2 Community Education Council; and Tiffany Winbush, a Financial District resident who has served on Community Board 1. (Two other candidates, Denny Salas and Susan Lee, did not participate.)

The candidates, who were seeking the club’s endorsement, answered questions on a wide range of local issues. Here are some of their responses, in brief. (A video of the entire forum can be viewed here.) 

How can Lower Manhattan be made resilient to defend itself against climate change?

Li complained about poor coordination among various plans, too much red tape, and “a lot of money being spent on consultants.” Low said the city should look for ways to curb emissions, and Maron called for identifying vulnerable residents who may need help in getting food and medical aid during future storms. Marte said agencies need to be held accountable and “send representatives who know what they’re talking about when they come to the community.” He called climate change “the biggest threat to our district.”

Should Lower Manhattan be more welcoming to the homeless population?

This is an issue that became controversial, and the subject of lawsuits, after Mayor de Blasio ordered homeless men housed in an Upper West Side hotel moved to a hotel on William Street in the Financial District—a move now delayed for months by a judge’s order. Winbush and Li said the Financial District doesn’t have its fair share of shelters, while Maron, without mentioning the Financial District specifically, insisted that “Lower Manhattan has had a tremendous number of shelters, some well run, and some needing improvement.” Low and Marte also did not address the Financial District controversy, with Low calling for more “permanent homes for folks” and supportive housing. Marte advocated for zoning changes to allow the conversion of empty hotels into affordable housing.

The issue of homeless shelters sparked a clash between Maron and Winbush. Maron said that all communities are entitled to streets “that are safe to walk at night,” adding that the de Blasio shelter policy “has both failed to serve the actual people who are in need of shelter, who certainly deserve compassion, but has also put undue burdens on our communities.” 

Winbush responded, linking Maron’s statement with her advocacy for keeping the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. “Homelessness does not automatically equal violence just as school integration does not automatically equal the lowering of educational standards,” she said. Maron used her time for responding to a question about congestion pricing to answer Winbush back. “Of course homelessness doesn’t equal crime directly,” she said, noting that she has represented many “good people” who were homeless. “But there is absolutely a correlation.” 

What would you be doing differently than the current administration to protect the public and prevent more crime in our neighborhood?

Four of the five candidates saw mental health, job training and other social service programs as the solution to crime reduction. 

“Poverty is not the answer to everything crime related but a lot of it is,” Winbush said. “We need to focus on getting people what they need…so that they don’t resort to a life of crime.” According to Marte, the spike in crime is due to a reduction in social services during the pandemic. Once the city opens up again “we can make sure that people who needed help before the pandemic, [as well as those] dealing with isolation and substance abuse …will get the help they need.” Both Li and Low said police need to have a better relationship with the communities where they serve. Only Maron, who called the crime spike “a real and urgent concern,” spoke of law enforcement as part of the solution. She said she wants to see more police on the street and in the subways. “We need to make sure that people feel safe going to work, coming home from work, and they need to be able to see community patrols,” she said.

How would you make congestion pricing fairer for Lower Manhattan car owners?

Most candidates agreed that congestion pricing—a charge that will be levied on drivers entering Manhattan below 61st Street to reduce traffic congestion—should provide “carve outs” for seniors, the disabled, and businesses. Li called for “sliding scales for lots of different populations” while Winbush said, “It’s not something we should focus on now. There are other ways for the city to collect money.”

How would you testify for or against the 250 Water Street project?

This controversial tower project in the South Street Seaport Historic District, nearly four times taller than zoning allows, was sent back to the drawing board this month by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Maron called the issue “complicated” because the developer has also promised to save the struggling South Street Seaport Museum but “we don’t need mega-towers that loom over historic districts.” Winbush worried about the impact of construction of tall towers on two nearby schools, and Marte noted that “I’m the only candidate” who has been working with the Seaport Coalition and testifying to defeat the project. Li, whose boss Margaret Chin supports the towers, called the towers too tall and should come with more community benefits. But she was the only candidate who said she would not support limiting development to within the current 120-foot zoning height limit.

What do you think of the current plan for development of Governors Island?

The rezoning plan for a section of the island south of the historic district would allow many types of development that is restricted under current zoning. Li called the plan “problematic,” Maron said she has “a lot of concerns” and Marte said he opposes it. Low would “go with what the community wants.” For Winbush, “the current proposal to overdevelop it would take away all of the benefits provided to District 1 and beyond.”