New Members Bring Youth and Experience to Community Board 7

By Leslie Albrecht on April 10, 2012 9:33am 

Laura Atlas, 22, was appointed to Community Board 7 in 2012. She grew up on the Upper West Side.
Laura Atlas, 22, was appointed to Community Board 7 in 2012. She grew up on the Upper West Side.
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Laura Atlas

UPPER WEST SIDE — An auxiliary cop, an architect, a lawyer, and a staffer for a state politician are bringing fresh faces and young blood to Community Board 7.

The four new members, appointed recently by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, are all in their 20s and 30s, while most of Community Board 7's current members are in their 50s or older.

The new members bring a range of experience and backgrounds to the community board, a volunteer panel that makes recommendations about neighborhood issues like restaurant liquor licenses and sidewalk cafe permits.

Joining Community Board 7 is Laura Atlas, a lifelong Upper West Sider who grew up at the Westgate Apartments, the Mitchell-Lama complex on West 97th Street and Columbus Avenue where tenants fought a passionate battle against converting the building to market-rate housing.

Living at Westgate, now called Stonehenge Village, gave Atlas an early introduction to the power of grassroots organizing. She's hoping to put some of that knowledge to work on Community Board 7, she said.

"It's a way to be active in the community that I had grown up in," Atlas said of joining the community board. "I had seen the neighborhood change in certain ways I didn't agree with, so it's a way to maintain the sense of the old neighborhood."

Atlas is director of constituent services for Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side. She's an active member of the Westgate Tenants Association and wants to focus on housing issues during her time on the community board.

Atlas is also interested in public schools and after-school programs for young people. Atlas, who attended Bard High School Early College and SUNY Purchase, said after-school programs were important to her when she was growing up and she'd like to help defend them from budget cuts.

"I'd be excited to work and see what can be done in that arena," Atlas said. "The people who live on the Upper West Side are parents who have jobs that don’t have normal hours of operation, so it's important."

Another new Community Board 7 member is Lee Ping Kwan, a 31-year-old architect at Kohn Pederson Fox who's lived on the Upper West Side since graduating from Columbia University with a master's degree in 2006. Kwan lives on Riverside Boulevard, in one of the Riverside South high-rises managed by the Trump Corporation.

Kwan, who's spent time in China and speaks Mandarin, said he's seen firsthand how a lack of public input on development has had a negative effect on China's urban environment. In contrast, New York's community boards serve as an "invaluable form of participatory government," Kwan said.

Kwan is interested in making the Upper West Side more bike-friendly, and he's looking forward to monitoring the development of Extell's new Riverside Center development.

Architecture and urban planning courses at Columbia gave Kwan an understanding of how the city changes over time, and why, for example, an old building like the Colonial Club at West 72nd Street and Broadway was torn down to make way for the new luxury apartment complex The Corner, he said.

That background that will serve him well on the community board, he said.

"As an architect, to see the rising land values on the Upper West Side and knowing the destructive power that has, I was interested in getting inside the process and shaping things as they happen," Kwan said. "Economic forces are pretty powerful."

Meetings of the community board sometimes run several hours and feature lengthy and heated debates, but its role is only advisory. The board can advocate positions on neighborhood issues, but it doesn't have the power to enforce its rulings.

Community Board 7 is an important forum for addressing almost every aspect of Upper West Side life. In the last year, the board has tackled bikes lanes, food trucks, rats in Riverside Park, the massive new development Riverside Center, and whether Tavern on the Green should serve diners in sweatpants.

Another new member, DeNora Getachew, is a 32-year-old attorney who graduated from Fordham University's law school and formerly served as public policy director for the New York City Public Advocate's office.

Also joining the board is Stephen Vazquez, a 22-year-old auxiliary police officer and tutor at Champion Learning Center, who graduated from Hunter College in 2011. Getachew and Vazquez couldn't be reached for comment.

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