Community Board Six looks to solve problems before they start
Leaders say outside-the-box thinking helps
The leaders of Brooklyn’s Community Board Six said it’s important to not just to confront issues in their district head-on but to be on the lookout for potential problems before they arise.
Board Six covers several neighborhoods, all of them distinct and varied: Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, the Columbia Street Waterfront District, Gowanus and Red Hook.
In its role as a community watchdog, Board Six always has its radar out to pick up signs of developing issues. “There are some issues that we can see happening,” Chairman Sayar Lonial said.
Lonial and Craig Hammerman, Board Six’s longtime district manager, recently sat down with the Brooklyn Eagle for an interview in the board’s district office at 250 Baltic St.
The board is troubled by an increase in the number of empty storefronts on Smith Street, one of the trendiest shopping destinations in the borough.
“There are a lot of reasons for it. There is a lack of foot traffic. The public’s buying habits are a factor. Everyone orders online,” Lonial told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It’s a troubling issue. We need to come up with economic development policies to deal with it.”
Lonial plans to ask the board’s Economic Development Committee to look into the matter. “It’s a complicated problem. It’s not just a question of landlords charging too much to rent,” he said.
“This board is a great example of how to look at an issue and form comprehensive plans to address it,” the chairman added.
Lonial also said that while there are issues unique to the Board Six area, “there are also issues important to this community that are important to every community.”
Another potentially hot issue is one that is pitting environmentalists against housing preservationists.
Owners of landmarked buildings are erecting solar panels on their properties to save energy costs, a noble goal except that in the view of many on Board Six, the panels change the character of the landmarked buildings.
“This is the past coming into conflict with the future,” Hammerman said.
“Our board is on record as being in favor of sustainability,” Lonial said. “But we have to respect the past.”
It’s is a significant issue since Board Six has three historic districts — Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill.
“We need guidelines from the Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Lonial said, referring to the city panel. As for the rules regarding the placement of solar panels, “we need to find a way to review them,” he said.
Hammerman said it’s important to have balance. “How do you reconcile historic preservation and sustainability?” he asked.
Board Six members all have something in common, according to Hammerman. “They all care about their community,” he said.
Hammerman, has been on the job for 26 years. Three current members of the board — Jerry Armer, Pauline Blake and Robert Levine — were board members when Hammerman first arrived.
Lonial, the senior director of marketing and communications for the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, has been a board member for four years. He was appointed to the board on the recommendation of Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Park Slope), his former college professor.
Lander called Lonial up one day and asked him to consider serving on the local community board. “It’s hard to say no to your old professor,” Lonial said with a smile.
All of the city’s 59 community boards have a chairperson and a district manager. The boards, which are comprised of 50 volunteer members, vote for a chairperson to lead them. The duties of a chairperson include running the board’s monthly meetings, setting the agenda and appointing committee chairpersons. The boards advise the city on land use and other issues and although they don’t legislate, their role cannot be taken lightly, according to Hammerman. “The community board is advisory, but that does not make us powerless,” he told the Eagle.
A district manager is a paid employee of the board who is hired to deal with constituent concerns and work with city agencies to endure the smooth delivery of city services like sanitation and snow removal.
Board Six leaders believe they are listened to and respected by city agencies. Lonial said that is due in no small part to Hammerman’s long tenure as district manager.
Hammerman has worked hard to build strong relationships over the past two decades with city officials. “The district manager has institutional relations with agencies,” he said.
Hammerman sends a newsletter out to 5,600 subscribers to spread the word about any upcoming meetings and to describe actions taken by the board. The newsletter also includes minutes of board meetings.
The board meets on the second Wednesday of the month between September and June. The board meetings take place in a different venue every month. With such a widespread district, it is important to move the meetings around, Hammerman and Lonial said.
Lonial emails notices of committee meetings to let people know the topics to be discussed.
Much of the work done by Board Six is actually done at the committee level, Lonial said.
By the time the full board holds its monthly meetings, issues have already been discussed. The board is really putting a final stamp of approval, or disapproval, on an issue.
Lonial encourages members of the public to not only attend committee meetings, but to join the committees as members. One does not have to be a Board Six member to join a committee. The chairperson of a committee has to be a board member, however.
The membership of Board Six varies in age range and experience. While there are members who have been there for many years, the board also has three members under the age of 18. They joined the board when they were high school students. Lonial and Hammerman both said the young people bring a lot to the board.
“More people engaged make better communities,” Lonial said.
The councilmembers representing the neighborhoods of Board Six are Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca and Stephen Levin. Technically, the borough president appoints all 50 members to a community board, but half of those members are given their seats based on the recommendations of local councilmembers.
Lander, whose Park Slope council district takes up the largest swath of Board Six, has a hand in the appointments of 20 of the board’s members. Menchaca gets three selections while Levin has two.
Hammerman, whose tenure as district manager dates back to the Dinkins administration, is currently seeking to make an issue of the fact that the city has not adjusted the district lines of the city’s 59 community boards in a long time. It is a task that is supposed to be done once every 10 years in years that end in 3’s.
New district lines are drawn for community boards to reflect any population shifts that are detected in the most recent U.S. Census.
The last re-mapping was done in 2003. There was no adjustment in 2013. “The city is supposed to look at the boundary lines,” Hammerman said.
Board Six lays claim to some of Brooklyn’s most beautiful neighborhoods, with beautiful brownstones lining many of its streets.
The board’s leaders said they are also proud of waterfront development that has taken place. post-Superstorm Sandy, the city has done a great deal of work in Red Hook to make the buildings resilient.
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