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BY LESLEY SUSSMAN | It was “open mic night” at the Tompkins Square Library on Tuesday, but the more than 100 local residents who packed the “East Village Town Hall” meeting that was held there were not interested in reading poetry or performing music.
They crowded into the third-floor meeting room to vent their concerns about a variety of issues affecting the East Village, Lower East Side and even the West Village — everything from the dangers of hydraulic fracturing a.k.a. “fracking” to the future fate of the community gardens.
The 6 p.m. meeting was hosted by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and attended by representatives from more than 16 government agencies. Also present were several other political leaders, including state Senator Daniel Squadron and City Councilmember Rosie Mendez.
More than two dozen local residents took the opportunity to step up to the microphone to ask questions and raise concerns about the future direction of the neighborhood. In addition to fracking and gardens, residents spoke about farmers’ markets; the overabundance of bars and liquor licenses, resulting in late night-night noise, garbage and other quality-of-life issues; rampant development; unscrupulous landlords; the lack of affordable housing; and the need for improved M.T.A. service in the neighborhood.
Other issues discussed at the two-hour meeting included opposition to the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy; local religious institutions’ desire to be exempt from the city’s planned East Village/Lower East Side Historic District; the decline in funding for the New York City Housing Authority and its effect on the elderly and poor; and the need for more solar power and other energy-saving green projects in the neighborhood.
One important development at the meeting came in response to a local resident’s complaint that the Lower East Side and East Village were “the filthiest neighborhoods in the city.”
In response, Ignazio Terranova, a representative of the city’s Department of Sanitation, acknowledged the problem and said that his agency had recently been budgeted for an additional 401 Sanitation workers citywide, which will help improve garbage pickup in the area.
Stringer told the Department of Sanitation official that he wants to set up a meeting between the agency and local residents to identify specific blocks where garbage pickup is poor.
In another development, the borough president told several residents who voiced concern about the future of community gardens and farmers’ markets that he will push for the creation of a new city office — a Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets.
Stringer added that instead of encouraging the growth of farmers’ markets, the city too often buries them in a maze of permit requirements and costly operating fees.
“I have begun working with the city Parks Department to cut the red tape holding back so many of these markets,” he stated.
The idea for a new Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets won support from Councilmember Mendez. Speaking after the meeting, she noted that the Parks Department has, over the years, had the responsibility for overseeing community gardens and farmers’ markets and “has done a great job of dealing with them.
“I don’t know if the jurisdiction for the gardens would shift to that commissioner,” Mendez said. “We’d have to wait and see under a new mayoral administration if that would happen. But it’s a great idea for all the food markets, greenmarkets and little kiosks that sell fruits and vegetables in the city. We need someone to have oversight over them.”
Stringer kicked off the standing-room-only town hall meeting by declaring that the evening was “open mic night.” The borough president said that he and the various city agency representatives were eager to hear what was on residents’ minds and to see if they could be of assistance.
The borough president reminded the audience that the Lower East Side and East Village has traditionally been the home for many immigrants coming to America seeking a better way of life.
“We want to make sure that everyone can continue to live here,” he said, “and to keep this neighborhood a place where housing is available for the poor, middle-class and wealthy.”
One of the first concerns raised at the meeting focused on the issue of unscrupulous local landlords who, one resident said, were “wreaking havoc” and “taking advantage” of their tenants. The speaker cited as an example the case of 47 E. Third St., whose owners succeeded in emptying the entire, 15-unit, rent-regulated building in order to create a five-story mansion for themselves.
“We’re trying to get justice for people whose landlords are causing them a lot of heartache and pain,” Stringer responded. “I want to send a clear message to landlords like this one that they have to stand down.”
The borough president also heard from Anthony Donovan, a member of a local interfaith organization whose houses of worship want to be exempt from the pending landmarked district.
“We haven’t found a single politician to address our concerns,” Donovan said.
“We’ve got a lot of worthy buildings in this neighborhood and we should be hiring people to meet with local residents and historians to create a long-range plan,” Stringer answered him.
Several speakers raised concerns about a Houston-based gas company, Spectra Energy, which plans to build a high-pressure, natural gas pipeline from Jersey City to Gansevoort Peninsula near the Meat Market.
This hydraulic fracturing procedure involves drilling deep into the earth and using explosives, millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals to break apart shale, creating fissures that would release the gas, which would be used for homes and businesses.
Jessica Roff, a Brooklyn resident, told the borough president, “Fracking is not an environmental issue but a public health one.” She said that the gas released during this process contained toxic chemicals, such as radon, “the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers.”
Stringer agreed that the push by the city to convert buses, boilers and power plants to methane and to supply all this extra gas via massive pipelines was “totally unsafe and dangerous,” and promised to create a coalition of concerned residents to “work on this issue.”
The B.P. was joined by Squadron, who told Roth that “fracking was not going to happen here. The governor is not going to let it happen. But we have to fight against this throughout the state.”
One of the evening’s biggest complaints involved late-night noise and other quality-of-life issues. Judith Zaborowski, a member of the Ninth St. Block Association, said that calls to the Ninth Precinct about late-night street noise — mostly from “N.Y.U. students” leaving bars and nightclubs, she said — were falling on deaf ears.
“This is a huge issue for us,” Deputy Inspector John Cappelmann, the precinct’s commanding officer, said. “There are more than 300 bars and restaurants in our precinct. It’s a continual battle that we have to fight, and we do monitor and respond to all complaints that we get.”
Several residents spoke out about the need for better bus service for the Lower East Side and East Village, especially for residents living between Avenue D and First Ave. Stringer agreed and said what was needed was a “more stable stream of revenue for the M.T.A. so that they could expand their services.”
The borough president said he was working on a plan to create “an infrastructure bank for mass transit called the New York City Transit Trust.” He said this trust would support crucial transportation public services in Manhattan.
He also called for a restoration of the city’s commuter tax, which was repealed in 1999.
“This will help fund and improve the transit system and get people who work in the city but live outside the five boroughs to add a few bucks to the M.T.A. budget,” Stringer said.
In response to concerns about the financially struggling Housing Authority and new fees that are being imposed on residents — including senior citizens who cannot afford to pay more rent — Stringer said, it again, speaks to the need for adequate financing.
“This is a very serious problem,” he said. “I plan to propose a number of strong reforms to help solve that agency’s budget problem.”