Levin defends record in office at City Council debate
by Benjamin Fang
Oct 31, 2017 | 429 views | 1 1 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Despite the pouring rain, dozens of residents attended a Sunday night debate between Councilman Stephen Levin and challenger Victoria Cambranes at The Commons Cafe in Boerum Hill.

Seeking a third term, Levin has represented the communities of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Vinegar Hill, Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill and Gowanus since 2010.

Cambranes, a daughter of immigrants and a Greenpoint native, is a political newcomer, with a background in digital marketing and communications. She’s running on her own “Progress For All” party line. They will both be on ballot on November 7.

At the outset, Cambranes noted that the two candidates are both “quite progressive,” a comparison that rang true on many issues. Both listed gentrification as the biggest issues facing their communities today. They both also agreed to, if elected, sign onto legislation ending the spraying of pesticides to kill mosquitos.

On the issue of school segregation, both the incumbent and the challenger pledged to push the de Blasio administration to do more, particularly for vulnerable students in underfunded classrooms. They also support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a proposed bill that has been considered in the City Council for decades.

But despite all their commonalities, their approaches toward community issues and this election differ. Levin largely defended his record in the City Council, noting that he has passed 15 bills this term and expect to pass five more.

Legislation with his name run the gamut, addressing issues like reforming the foster care system, removing trucks from overburdened communities, and creating a real-time enforcement unit within the Department of Buildings (DOB).

He also touted his work as chair of the Committee on General Welfare, where he oversees homelessness, social service and child protection policies.

“Over the last few years, I’ve been an even more effective council member than I was in my first term,” Levin said.

Cambranes’s focus during the debate was going after the incumbent’s controversial decisions. Throughout the night, she pointedly criticized Levin for not negotiating enough concessions from developers on housing projects.

She also questioned his approach of using public-private partnerships to “sell off public assets.”

“I’m not an enemy of development, we do need good development in this district,” she said. “We want it to be responsible and balanced. We want the people in the community to benefit from all these developments.”

A major difference was over the proposed developments at 80 Flatbush Avenue in Boerum Hill. The development would bring two towers, the first at 38 stories and the other at 74 stories, to the neighborhood. The project would add 900 new residential units, including 200 affordable, as well as substantial cultural, office and retail space.

The proposal would also create two new schools. The Khalil Gibran International Academy High School, currently located in a 125-year-old building, would move into the new school facility on State Street and expand to 350 students.

Most in the room on Sunday night were opposed to the plan, which they concluded would accelerate gentrification in the area. Levin said he had not yet come to a conclusion on the project, though he noted that it had “problematic elements for sure.”

Levin said the new school is needed for the students at Khalil Gibran International Academy because their current home is “not appropriate.”

“As proposed, I don’t think it’s acceptable right now,” Levin said about the 80 Flatbush plan, “but it’s something we need to have a community discussion about.”

Cambranes outright opposed the project. She argued the conditions at Khalil Gibran International Academy are “not so bad,” and insisted the building isn’t falling apart.

She especially objected to the idea of letting the facility fall into disrepair just so a developer can “come in and save the day” by buying public assets.

“There are alternatives for funding a school like Khalil Gibran, we don’t have to sell it out to a huge developer,” she said. “I believe that’s wrong. We’re selling it for pennies on the dollar.”

Another project they sparred over was the selling of the Brooklyn Heights library two years ago. The site at 280 Cadman Plaza West was sold to developer Hudson Companies for $52 million to build a 36-story residential tower that would include a new library on the ground floor and basement.

Among the concessions Levin negotiated was a new 5,000-square-foot branch in Dumbo and Vinegar Hill, a new STEM lab at the Brooklyn Heights location, a technology and business services center, a profit-sharing model where the city collects a small portion of the developer’s gains after a 19 percent rate, of return and more affordable units.

Cambranes blasted the deal as another public asset being sold “for pennies on the dollar to the great detriment of the community.”

But the incumbent councilman said the development would not only bring a new library with more total usable square footage, it also produced $40 million to help address Brooklyn Public Library’s $350 million capital needs gap boroughwide.

The new library would have 26,500 square feet above ground, and including the new 5,000-square-foot branch in Dumbo/Vinegar Hill, that totals 31,500 square feet.

“That was not a project that I came up with,” Levin said. “I was not thrilled about having to consider this proposal and approve it, but I thought it was the responsible thing to do for the entire borough of Brooklyn.”

Cambranes countered that people fought for the library, and accused Levin of doing a “backroom deal,” a charge which he denied.

“I did a lot of soul searching on this project. We spent countless hours delving into the substance of the decision,” he said. “We strive to do the right thing, to look out for the public’s interest. The replacement will be just as good, if not better, than the existing library, while also producing millions of dollars in needed funds to the system.”

They also disagreed on the Constitutional Convention, which Levin opposes and Cambranes supports, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), a proposed streetcar from Sunset Park to Astoria.

Levin is “not necessarily opposed” to the project, citing the increased transportation links between neighborhoods in his district. Cambranes opposed it because of the cost, that it runs through a flood zone, and on suspicion that it has real estate interests.

The candidates later clashed about the privatization of park space. Levin said he has voted against all privatization of public spaces, and has worked to ensure promises were kept during the 2005 Greenpoint/Williamsburg rezoning that preceded his tenure in office.

Cambranes needled him for the ferry dock in Williamsburg, tucked away behind luxury towers, as well as the compromised views at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

“That happened under your watch,” she said. “It took one phone call from you to prevent that from happening.”

Levin touted his work to bring together a developer and the city to complete the last 27 acres for Bushwick Inlet Park. However, Cambranes said the city paid $160 million for the “little piece of land.”

When Levin objected that 27 acres is not insignificant park space, Cambranes said it is “when compared to the rest of the waterfront.”

In their final pitch to voters at the debate, Cambranes reiterated that she was not beholden to any real estate or special interests, and has no ties to the de Blasio administration.

“I would champion the community’s concerns, first and foremost,” she said. “I’m not beholden to anyone except the community”

Levin said he hopes to continue the work he has done in the City Council and shared that helping people is at the heart of the job.

“I can look at myself in the mirror and can say I made those decisions with the best integrity I can achieve,” he said.
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Michael D. D. Whitei
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November 06, 2017
One very important mistake here: The so-called "replacement" library in Downtown Brooklyn/Brooklyn Heights would only have 15,000 square feet above ground space as opposed to almost 38,000 square feet above ground space for the now demolished central destination Business, Career and Education library. The whole library, with its two half floors underground was 63,000 square feet.