Mott Haven Residents Vie for $1 Million in City Council Discretionary Funds

By Patrick Wall on February 24, 2012 2:08pm 

Joe Perez, Ray Figueroa and Rev. Cleveland Coley presented ideas for public projects in Mott Haven during a
Joe Perez, Ray Figueroa and Rev. Cleveland Coley presented ideas for public projects in Mott Haven during a "participatory budgeting" event on Feb. 23, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

BRONX — It was the the million-dollar question in Mott Haven Thursday.

Residents of the neighborhood gathered Thursday night to debate how to use discretionary funds from City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has set aside $1 million for various projects in her Bronx and Manhattan district.

But there's a catch: Only the projects that receive the most public votes will receive the money.

The event was the third “neighborhood assembly,” where volunteers described projects proposed by residents in Mark-Viverito’s district, which includes the Upper West Side and East Harlem in Manhattan, and part of Mott Haven in the Bronx. Most of the projects are centered in Manhattan, where the bulk of District 8 constituents live, but a few are specific to Mott Haven.

The community-led funding process is known as participatory budgeting. Chicago is the only other U.S. city that has tried it, according to the low-income advocacy group Community Voices Heard, which pushed for New York City lawmakers to adopt the process.

Mark-Viverito — along with Councilmen Eric Ulrich of Queens, and Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams in Brooklyn — agreed to reserve at least $1 million each in discretionary funds this year for projects that constituents both suggest and select.

And there was certainly no shortage of ideas or creativity at the meeting.

One woman acted out a painful-looking fall to illustrate the need for a new roof above a slippery walkway. Another woman tried humor, calling a water-filled basketball court a public pool. And one man, Ray Figueroa, unleashed a catchy bit of campaign rhetoric to make the case for two vegetable-growing greenhouses.

“We’re talking about growing food and growing your income,” Figueroa boomed. “Harvesting health and harvesting your wealth.”

Figueroa’s proposed pair of solar-powered greenhouses would collect sunlight atop roofs at the Mill Brook Houses on St. Ann’s Avenue. They would operate year-round, make use of hydroponic farming, which substitutes nutrient-rich water for soil, and cost somewhere in the “six figures,” Figueroa said.

He plans for young people to run the mini-farms and to sell the produce to Mott Haven residents in a kind of high-tech act of social entrepreneurship that Figueroa said would set the neighborhood apart.

“This would be relatively revolutionary,” said Figueroa, who lives in Manhattan but works in the South Bronx with the environmental group Friends of Brook Park.

Residents of Mark-Viverito's district came up with more than 560 project proposals, ranging in cost from $35,000 to $105,000, at a series of public brainstorming sessions last fall. Then volunteers formed working groups — youth, seniors, health, housing and others — and whittled down the list of hundreds of ideas to about 30 they determined were most viable.

During the last week of March, district residents who are at least 18 years old can vote on their five favorite proposals. Mark-Viverito will fund as many of the top vote-getting proposals as the $1 million will cover.

“It’s your money,” she told the crowd of about two-dozen gathered at the senior center Thursday evening. “You should be able to decide how your money’s spent.”

At the meeting, Rev. Cleveland Coley, who lives on Brook Avenue, described other plans for the Mill Brook Houses that community members concocted. He said rodent-proof recycling bins, new security cameras and lights, working intercoms, and cement patios with barbecues would all improve life at the public housing development, where nine, 16-story buildings house more than 3,000 residents, according to the city.

The outdoor patios could even help calm tensions between rival crews of teenagers, Coley suggested.

“If you bring anyone to a table where you can eat, you can become friends,” he said.

Coley added that funding could go toward new equipment for the development's playground, which is not handicap accessible and only has one slide.

“They call it a children’s park," said Coley, a retired subway conductor and Pentecostal preacher who grew up in the Mill Brook Houses and raised his own children there. "That’s a joke.”

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