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January 10th, 2006

SoHo Interview: Councilmember Margarita Lopez, Candidate for Manhattan Borough President

by D. Clark MacPherson

In a small SoHo caf?���, the Cupping Room actually, City Council Member Margarita Lopez agreed to talk about her passion-politics.What initially was to be a short discussion about her views on SoHo’s problems and how she has developed her political persona over the years, turned into a well-deserved lecture on social policy.

In her candid and sometimes humorous approach to dealing with New York politicos, she gave us the essence of her view on the problems facing us in Manhattan. Lopez feels that the fallacy of social policy is that we follow the demands of Institutions rather than first following the needs of the Community and its people. Rather than building affordable housing and addressing the basic needs of shelter, we first grant variances for developers  blindly trusting that this will result in a sufficient housing stock to accommodate community needs. We provide easy access for vehicles to commute through our streets without first planning for the results of the pollution that will ensue. We grant 900 new taxi medallions through the City Council to infuse the economy with more income to the city before extracting benefits like requiring that some new cabs be wheelchair accessible (which Lopez insisted upon and succeeded in getting).

The guiding principle of her “fanatical sociology” (a fusion of political science, psychology, and social science) is to question whether we adequately consider and appraise the demands of institutions while also assessing the needs of our people. Without first considering the impact of our social strategies on the populace, the planning policies will ultimately fail.

Margarita pointed to the three lane traffic jam at West Broadway and Broome Street  where there was no traffic agent allowing pedestrians to cross the street and where horns blared incessantly while engine exhausts blew noxious fumes into the air. “That is an example of the failure of social planning,” she said, “Instead of considering the effects of pollution, noise and traffic congestion on our people-and arranging for adequate enforcement first-we have simply encouraged more traffic to flow through our streets to bring customers for our businesses. That shortsighted planning, fails because the cars can’t go anywhere. Even if you had a Ferrari, you couldn’t go anywhere. You’d just have to sit in traffic.”

Our focus, she insists, needs to be redirected toward improving the infrastructure of our city. We must have an adequate sewage system, sufficient parking, other essential services, and a percentage of affordable housing units, for example, before we grant variances for certain new buildings. Especially where the developer is asking for the ability to increase size or bulk of a proposed building.

When we asked Margarita to comment on the view that the Borough President (the office she is running for) was considered to be a largely ceremonial position, she shook her head and said that she strongly disagreed with that point of view. “That depends upon the person sitting in that position. I am not afraid of power and I am not afraid to use it.

I consider political power to be a force to be used. If you have character and you are ethical, you should use the power you have and not be afraid. Power should just not be used by egotists or for corrupt purposes.”

The primary focus of the Borough President, in her opinion, is to create balance in the Community Boards. Although considered only advisory in nature, Lopez disagrees with that description. She considers the Community Board to be a valuable source of policy analyses. While the Boards cannot make policy, they are ideally suited to interpret, analyze and transmit information through direct contact with the community  providing enriched information that is not available anywhere else. Even if the Borough President were to appoint a panel to do this job, the appointees would not have the ability to decipher and interpret as well as those who have direct personal contact with the people and their issues.

Councilmember Lopez feels that the Community Boards are not currently “balanced” and are in need of rejuvenation. She feels that Board members are not appreciated but also feels that there are some people on Boards that disrupt rather than help and are operating through an agenda for special interests. Those people should not remain on our Community Boards, she believes.

The second most important function of the Borough President is the ability to influence or control aspects of the ULURP process (Land Use Review). While the office itself only has a budget of $500,000 to $700,000, its Capital Budget ranges from $12,000,000 to $15,000,000. In conjunction with the City Council and the Mayor’s Office, it is possible to have a great effect upon certain worthy projects. When there is cooperation between these revenue sources, amazing things can be accomplished for the community. She then described a project, which she calls the “Cultural District” that she successfully fostered in her area. The group of about 24 Lower East Side, non-profit cultural organizations (film, theater, dance) will own the locations they occupy. They will be affordable units and they will not be able to be evicted. Arts organizations like Theatro Circulo, Roy Rogers Dance Company and LaMama will be saved from the plight of many other artistic companies, as has happened in SoHo. There are tax abatements for arts businesses and the buildings cannot be used for profit-making businesses; and they can only be sold to other arts organizations.

Her relationship with Mayor Bloomberg has not only helped her constituents but also kept the business of cooperative government on a positive level. Antagonism is not the “stuff” of good politics and the joking about whether she is “J-Lo” or “M-Lo” seems to have hit a chord with Bloomberg. Apparently, Margarita and Michael cannot be left alone too long or the jokes start to get positively, well, colorful.

While it is difficult to predict who will finish the race as Borough President, Margarita Lopez is clearly a first rate contender who still has most of her campaign money in place. No one should be prepared to argue with her social positions without a great deal of research and ammunition. As we first stated, her strength is her passion and after meeting with her, there is no doubt about that. “

Editor’s Note: To reach Margarita’s campaign team or to contact her, go to www.margaritalopez.com, call her at (212) 375-9999, or e-mail her at margarita@margaritalopez.com.

Filed Under: Articles | Interview | New York | Politics

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