UPPER WEST SIDE — It's still several days until Helen Rosenthal officially opens the doors to her local City Council office on Jan. 6. But she's already been sworn in and wants to get to work, using her bike to shuttle folders between her apartment and the Columbus Avenue storefront she's taking over from longtime local Councilwoman Gale Brewer.
Rosenthal, 52, who beat out a crowded field of candidates to win Brewer's seat, is highly optimistic about the future, especially given the progressive bent of the new mayor and the possibility of an equally progressive Speaker of the City Council.
She's supporting City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito for the Speaker position and said they had grown close over the years. Rosenthal said she appreciates that Mark-Viverito and Mayor de Blasio shared similar values and goals.
"The idea that everyone in leadership is on the same page is very exciting," she said, offering a simple plan for hitting the ground running regarding the new mayor's plan to address the city's income inequality.
"Let’s just do it," she said.
DNAinfo New York sat down with Rosenthal — a longtime Community Board 7 member who also worked in the city budget office for the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations — on the eve of her first term to learn about her chief priorities in the neighborhood.
What are your first goals for the neighborhood?
The first thing that I’m front-and-center focused on is the homeless shelter on [West] 95th street. One of my first priorities is unraveling that contract and finding a better solution for the people that need homeless services and the people in that neighborhood.
There is a lawsuit against the city. What I’d like to do is be focused on [the shelter] even during the time while we’re waiting to see what the results of the lawsuit are. What’s happening there matters. I’ve been in touch with the deputy mayor for Human Services.
I don’t think it’s fair to speculate what the solution is. But, I want to be clear that it’s a top priority for me. What’s happening now is absolutely not working and not acceptable.
In your campaign, you promised to make the city budget work better for constituents. How do you intend to do that?
I hope to be in a position to be able to work very closely with the administration to make sure our dollars are being spent on the people that government is meant to serve. We might do that through the contracting process or tax incentives — both of which have been off kilter. We might do that through easing the way that city services get funded so that institutions are not spending all their time just trying to get funded. It could be true for public schools, for our senior centers, for NYCHA, for nonprofits.
You mentioned that you got to know Mark-Viverito better through following her participatory budgeting process. Do you plan to bring that here?
I’m very excited to do participatory budgeting on the Upper West Side. It’s an intense community process where the goal is to get the community to participate in how to spend the city’s capital money. This opens it up to everyone. First of all to know that it exists, that Council people allocate funds for the district.
It starts with $1 million. Usually it has been the history that three to six projects are funded. Different constituencies identify things that have been bugging them. It’s been a wonderful array. I’ve helped Melissa in her district. I’ve gotten to know her in this process. She has funded laptops for schools and computer centers for libraries, a nutrition truck, a van for seniors. It’s about creative ideas that address core community needs. We’re not talking about frills by any stretch. It opens it up to the public. We’ll start gearing up in June.
Which programs are at the top of your list to make sure they get funded or get their funding renewed this year?
I’m going to keep my eye on the programs that Gale has committed to. Gale has historically funded the public schools well. I’m not taking my eyes off the ball from that. We’re beginning the process in January and urge people to contact the office. We’ll be holding an information session for small nonprofits and parents and parent associations.
Where will we first see your mark in the neighborhood — in a physical sense?
The [future use of the] Beacon Building will get addressed quickly because along with parents, I am anxious for that space to be appropriate. We’re going to work on that first thing. Not having enough funds is not a good enough answer [from the DOE.]
You’ve criticized overdevelopment in the neighborhood. How do you plan to fight that?
The issue with overdevelopment is that developers are not contributing enough to city services so that the city can function well to accommodate new residents. To the extent that we have new construction, we need to insure that our subway system can accommodate it. We are beyond the tipping point.
Everything is on the table [in terms of solutions]: contributing to the MTA or contributing to an escrow account for new faculty and teachers that would be needed at our local schools.
Working with the administration, I am excited to explore mandatory inclusionary zoning [requiring that 20 or 30 percent of any new housing be set aside as affordable]. That goes back to having an aligned City Council and mayor. Hopefully, we can implement that pretty easily.
Have you borrowed ideas from fellow candidates? Will you be working with them at all?
Ken Biberaj and I are moving forward on his idea to bring internet to NYCHA. That idea resonated so much for me because some of us take that for granted, but we are today living in a city where people living in public housing don’t have access to the internet. If our schools are providing homework on the internet, [students] don’t have access that. The libraries aren’t open all the time. Ken and I have a couple of ideas that we are exploring. It would mean partnering with some businesses that would enjoy that opportunity.
How are you going to keep in touch with constituents?
First and foremost by the decision to take this space [on Columbus and West 87th Street]. You can still come to the storefront and expect good services. We’ll be doing the rounds at schools, senior centers, community centers, at tenant association meetings.
We'll also do e-blasts, and have a website we hope to be very interactive and user-friendly. I would ask constituents to be a little patient with us. We’re here and we’re serious about working very hard. If your issue is extremely urgent, we will do everything we can to help. There are very important day-to-day constituent issues, and we are going to be working our hardest to get to know the right agencies. Please be patient with us. If we don’t address it right away, it won’t be for lack of trying.
What did you learn from residents during the transition period over the last two months?
During the transition I spent some time down at City Hall getting to know the City Council, which is not my background. That’s an area where I need to get fortified. I’m really looking forward to coming back and being at community meetings. And visiting tenant associations and senior centers. And also, to be honest, Gale has served this community so well and she did a terrific job all the way through Dec. 31, and will be amazing as our next borough president.
In which ways does your vision align with the new mayor’s and in which ways does it diverge?
[It diverges] on bike lanes. I don’t know what his position is on expanding them. I think bike lanes are an important addition to New Yorkers' quality of life. That jumps to mind. I think he’s very serious about community policing, as am I.
Does that mean you support a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue?
It has to be workable. I think we need it. I think it will happen. We have to be mindful of the small businesses and we have to address their needs along the way.
Who is getting overlooked in the neighborhood?
[West] 95th Street. That is pressing.
Many parents have suggested that local Catholic schools that have been closed should be converted to public schools. Is this something you support, and if so how would you make that happen?
Absolutely. We need to work with the city to lease additional space. It’s a matter of finding money in the budget. With the additional Beacon space coming on line, I’m not sure where we have the demand... We’ll see what happens. Over the last two years we in the community have been groping for what’s the right way to get more space. Beacon is coming online and the Riverside Center... We need to first focus on the Beacon space. That will be a big focus.
Rosenthal's public swearing-in is set ofr Jan. 5 from 3 to 5 p.m. at John Jay College. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-746-7729.