Simon says, ‘give communities a say in development’
In Public Service: Assemblymember Seeks Moratorium
If Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon had her way, there would be a more enhanced ferry service at Brooklyn Bridge Park. “I personally never liked the idea of housing there. I wanted a ferry terminal there,” she said.
“I lost that battle a long time ago,” she candidly told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Perhaps, but it’s one of only a few battles she has lost. And she’s still in there fighting on behalf of the constituents she represents in the 52nd Assembly District.
The district takes in all or part of several neighborhoods, including Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, Gowanus, Park Slope, Red Hook and Prospect Heights.
Simon, a Democrat, was elected to the state Assembly in November of 2014. She took office in January of this year.
Prior to her election, Simon was the Democratic district leader of the 52nd AD and had spent decades as a civic leader in Boerum Hill, where she has lived since 1983. She served for many years as president of the Boerum Hill Association. During her time there, the group undertook ambitious projects. At one point, to get a better feel for the community, Simon and other members walked door to door throughout the neighborhood and mapped out the entire area.
As a result of her civic and political activism, Simon has a unique understanding of community concerns at a grass roots level. She is not one to stand on ceremony. As a lawyer, Simon operated a small law firm with just two attorneys. She had to roll up her sleeves and get to work. “I was the chief cook and bottle washer,” she recalled.
In her district, the big issues are quality of life, land use and the environment. “Those are the things on the ground,” she said.
As she looks around her district and around other parts of Brooklyn, she is concerned about overdevelopment. “Things are changing so rapidly,” she said.
Simon said she believes development is happening too fast, too big and without proper, long-term planning. “Brooklyn is a great place. If we make it not a great place, people will not want to come,” she said, during a recent interview with the Eagle in her district office on Smith Street.
In a bold move, she is calling for a moratorium on new development.
“Let’s hit the pause button,” Simon told the Eagle. “We need to create a long term plan.”
Residential development is planned for the Atlantic Yards area, yet only 660 seats are being created at local schools, she said. “That is nowhere near enough,” she said.
One way to insure that development will fit a community’s needs is to make sure the community is involved in the process from the get-go, she said.
“Treat people with respect. Recognize their ownership of this,” she said.
But Simon also has advice for community leaders struggling to deal with development plans in their neighborhoods. In could be summed up in two words: Offer suggestions. “Let’s talk about what we want, not want we don’t want. The answer is for a community to say what it wants in the first place,” she told the Eagle.
Over the years, Simon has been at the forefront of many fights, including the effort to get the New York state Department of Transportation (DOT) to tear down the elevated Gowanus Expressway and replace it with an underground tunnel.
“We brought in a tunnel guy. It got us past the laugh test,” she recalled.
When DOT was slow to take the tunnel idea seriously, Simon and other tunnel proponents sued the state and federal governments. “We settled,” she said. The plaintiffs used the settlement money to hire a community engineer to work with advocates on a plan and design for a tunnel.
Simon said she thinks the Gowanus Tunnel isn’t dead but that it will take decades to go from the drawing board to reality. “I do believe it could be the Jo Anne Simon Memorial Tunnel,” she said.
The tunnel is a good idea, she said. “This would make such a difference environmentally.”
Taking cars off an elevated roadway and putting them underground will not only open up the streets but it would decrease air pollution and lower asthma rates, she said. The Gowanus “is spewing pollutants,” according to Simon, who predicted that a tunnel would lead to a “reduction in health care costs.”
Simon is a political reformer, but her freshman year in Albany was not filled with reform proposals. She spent her first year learning how Albany works, “First, you have to get a sense of how it operates. “I’m listening and learning. I have one session under my belt,” she said.
In her first few weeks, “there was a change in leadership in the senate,” she said, referring to the indictment of state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and the selection of state Sen. John Flanagan as his successor.
There was also a change at the top of the Assembly as longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver was indicted and stepped down from his leadership post. He was succeeded by Assemblymember Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
As a freshman, Simon said she has found that junior members of the Assembly have been free to speak out. They had been discouraged from speaking out prior to her time there, she was told.
When the speakership battle was taking place, 32 Assemblymembers signed a letter to the candidates requesting changes in the way the Assembly is run. Among the changes sought: letting more members get bills out of committee.
Heastie established a good system, she said. “People feel very free talking about their concerns. The speaker has been open to participation by freshmen. He created a committee of ethics reform. Things are certainly moving. The Assembly is generally open and transparent. The speaker has had a sharp learning curve,” she said.
Simon is the chairman of the Assembly Subcommittee on Tuition Assistance and serves on the Higher Education, Transportation, Labor, Consumer Affairs and Judiciary committees.
A big adjustment for her as a freshman in Albany was realizing “the supremacy of the governor in the budget process,” she said.
She was unhappy with portions of the state budget, particularly education funding. “There is under resourcing and inappropriate resourcing,” she charged.
Simon opposes tying student test scores to teacher evaluations. “There is no data to support it,” she said. The process is unfair to teachers, she contended. “We are starting with the assumption that teachers are not doing their jobs,” she said.
“Teachers have to teach the students that arrive at their doorstep,” she added. “Teachers are called upon to do so many things. Where are we giving them the training for that?”
She does believe that mayoral control of the New York City public school system should have been extended beyond the one year that the state Legislature gave Mayor Bill de Blasio “There is an element for the mayor to have some skin in the game,” she said.
Even before entering the Assembly, Simon stood up to political leaders and did not blink.
As a district leader, she found that Clarence Norman, the former Democratic county chairman, was “always a gentleman to me.”
But Norman’s successor, Vito Lopez, “was a whole different story,” she said.
Lopez ran the party like a dictatorship, giving district leaders little or no say, according to his critics.
Simon was one of a small handful of district leaders who took him on, fighting for reforms within the party.
Under Frank Seddio, the current country chairman, “things have improved,” Simon said.
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