NEW YORK -- This year's crop of mayoral candidates were in lockstep on waterfront and climate change issues yesterday during the first gathering of those looking to replace outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
With Bloomberg, an independent, set to retire after three terms, the field of candidates to succeed him were cautious in their first official foray into how to bolster the city's defenses against storm surges and sea level rise while the city continues to push development of its hundreds of miles of shoreline.
The candidates all appeared to side with Bloomberg, congratulating the mayor for his efforts to green the city and develop the waterfront for recreational and commercial purposes. This stands in stark contrast to a few who have sought to distance themselves from the media magnate on other issues in an attempt to emerge from the pack.
Among those who addressed climate change and waterfront development yesterday, during a Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA) forum, were City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller Bill Thompson and grocery store billionaire John Catsimatidis.
The question of how to cope with climate change while expanding shoreline activity has been elevated to more of an immediate A-list issue here after Superstorm Sandy last year, which exposed the city's vulnerability to high storm surges. This was especially evident in New York's public transit system and beachfront, much of which was flooded during and after the storm.
"Everybody's thinking about it now," said MWA President and CEO Roland Lewis.
Just how these issues will play out in the campaign to come this year began to take shape yesterday. The candidates were given five minutes to brief attendees on their likely approach and were then subject to a brief question-and-answer session.
'The waterfront mayor'
Of these, Quinn, a Democrat, was most specific in how she would deal with sea level rise, referencing a speech last year in which she proposed $20 billion on a variety of options that could include the kind of massive steel barriers that protect London from strong tides.
Quinn declared herself "the waterfront speaker" and pledged to become "the waterfront mayor" if elected this fall. She also characterized development over the last century that turned the shorelines into highway zones as a giant mistake.
"I've long said that one of the things that made New York City great is its reality as a river city, as a port city," Quinn said. "We turned our backs literally and figuratively on the river."
Quinn then promised to continue the policies of Bloomberg in this space, to include his PlaNYC and efforts to beef up ferry service throughout the five boroughs. She said she would support public subsidies for more ferries in an effort to tie them into the mass transit system.
Ferries "are difficult and they are costly, that's a reality," she said. "But that is also a reality about mass transit. There is no mass transit that is free."
Quinn noted that the East River Ferry system was the first public transit option in the most affected corridor of the city -- between Brooklyn and Manhattan -- to come back online after Sandy passed.
On climate change more broadly, Quinn said decisions to come are "the most important infrastructure project of our time." She said she is waiting for an Army Corps of Engineers study on project proposals before getting more specific at this stage. The study is expected any day.
"You get to say once it was an unprecedented storm," she said. "You don't get to do that again. We have to respond not in a way that we move away from the river."
Asked whether she would support a Department of Waterfront, Quinn said she would not and preferred to keep such matters under the direct purview of the mayor's office. She said rebuilding after Sandy and planning for climate adaptation are multifaceted, multiagency issues that are best left to an executive to handle, likely through the deputy mayor on the logistical level.
"It would be a department that would in a way be a clearinghouse," she said. "That's what the mayor's office should be."
Defending the 'straphangers'
Like Quinn, de Blasio -- known as a progressive and defender of outer boroughs -- lamented decisions that led to highways on either side of Manhattan. He pledged to continue Bloomberg's vision to make the shoreline a more active part of New Yorkers' existence.
In the last century, "waterfronts became a place for highways, not public access," he said. "That pains us to this day."
De Blasio said he would support a cross-harbor freight tunnel to take trucks off New York streets but was more general in his comments on climate change. As for Bloomberg, with whom de Blasio has repeatedly clashed on the controversial "stop and frisk" police policy, the candidate credited the mayor for what he views as "a very progressive" record on environmental policy.
On PlaNYC, de Blasio said, "I don't see a lot of it, honestly, that I would change." On ferries, de Blasio agreed with Quinn on expansion and said he saw New York one day operating with the kind of water ferry service that is more common in a city like Seattle.
The other candidates who attended echoed much of these remarks in tone, though they were less specific than either Quinn or de Blasio. Thompson said he would support bringing back a commuter tax that would fund mass transit specifically, including ferry service. Liu, a Queens native, said he would like to bring more waterfront development in that borough as well, in reference to a prevalent belief here that such issues resonate more in Manhattan than in other boroughs.
The specter of tight budgets hung over the entire discussion. Thompson said the coming budget reality for the city means expanded water transit would have to be funded by new revenue, federal dollars or development of new parks that would include private housing.
"The costs continue to fall on straphangers," Thompson said, in reference to subway riders. He suggested, among other ideas, implementing vehicle fees that would be based on the fuel efficiency of a given automobile to fund mass transit.
De Blasio said he would also support some sort of public subsidy for more ferry service and blasted Bloomberg for not signing labor contracts with unions. Bloomberg's fight with unions means "a new fiscal crisis is about to hit our city," he said.
"I don't think anyone should lightly devote city money," he said.
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