Letters to the editor, Mar. 19

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Tenants should campaign against Blackstone 

I attended the press conference on March 5 announcing that the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association had filed legal action in New York State Supreme Court to protect about 6,200 rent-stabilized units in the community from being illegally deregulated by The Blackstone Group.

The Blackstone Group, a global private equity firm, is a member of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). Blackstone, which is primarily owned and run by five of the greediest predators on earth, want to turn Stuy Town into a cash cow by raising rents sky high. The company is led by Stephen Schwarzman, chairman, CEO and co-founder. His net worth is $18.5 billion and he owns 231,924,793 shares or 47% of the company’s stock valued on March 5th at approximately $58 per share. His pay from 2016-2018 was $242 million.

The other four top executives at Blackstone are President Jonathan Gray (2016-2018 pay: $309 million), Executive Vice Chairman Hamilton James (2016-2018 pay: $232 million), Chief Financial Officer Michael Chae (2016-2018 pay: $65 million) and Vice Chairman J. Tomilson Hill (2016-2018 pay: $60 million).

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Where to order in during the coronavirus scare

Ess-A-Bagel, pictured here in 2016 before they opened in Stuy Town, is still offering pick-up and delivery. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order on Tuesday limiting restaurants, bars and cafes to take-out and delivery orders only as a precaution against coronavirus, also ordering nightclubs, movie theaters, small theater houses and concert venues to close. 

“Our lives are all changing in ways that were unimaginable just a week ago,” the mayor said. “We are taking a series of actions that we never would have taken otherwise in an effort to save the lives of loved ones and our neighbors. Now it is time to take yet another drastic step. The virus can spread rapidly through the close interactions New Yorkers have in restaurants, bars and places where we sit close together. We have to break that cycle.”

While many non-food related businesses have temporarily closed, some restaurants have also opted to close while the city fights the pandemic. 

The Union Square Hospitality Group announced on Friday that all of their restaurants would be closing temporarily. The list includes Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Union Square Cafe, Daily Provisions and others, although Shake Shack locations will remain open and will shift to a “to-go” only operating model. The company said on Tuesday that they would be setting up an employee relief fund to support the team members affected. Through March 24, when patrons purchase a gift card, 100% of the sales will go towards the employee relief fund. The gift card purchases can be redeemed at any of the restaurants, bars and cafes in New York or Washington DC. 

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Opinion: Save taxpayers before saving the world

By J.G. Collins

Senator Hoylman and Assemblymember Epstein recently wrote of their efforts to save the planet’s oceans and prevent global warming by voting to ban plastic bags in New York State and to assess a five- cent tax on each paper bag shoppers use to carry products home.

Those of us with more modest ambitions than saving the planet and a closer focus on municipal and fiscal matters would simply like to reduce the estimated $400,000,000 per year the city spends exporting its solid waste.

Why are we stopping with plastic shopping bags? And why inconvenience and tax already-harried New Yorkers in their hectic workdays to think to carry shopping bags—plastic or otherwise—instead of putting the burden upstream, on producers and distributors of products packaged in plastic?

Plastic milk and juice bottles, plastic take-out containers, and the huge plastic containers of coffee and other dry commodities could be abandoned if the state government had the will to stand up to business lobbyists who would oppose such moves.

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Police Watch: Man arrested for choking woman, Guitar theft in Union Square

MAN NABBED FOR CHOKING VICTIM ON WEST 25TH

Police arrested a 32-year-old man for obstruction of breath and assault in front of 109 West 25th Street on Saturday, February 22 at 12:30 a.m. The victim told police that he got into an argument with the suspect and was attempting to walk away. He said that he told the suspect to leave him alone and the suspect then grabbed the victim by the neck, causing pain and redness to the area. The suspect then punched the victim in the face multiple times, causing pain.

MAN ARRESTED FOR GUITAR THEFT, MULTIPLE TJ MAXX THEFTS

Police arrested a 45-year-old man for a theft from the TJ Maxx at 620 Sixth Avenue that took place earlier this year. Police said that on February 21 around 5:30 p.m., the suspect and two other people who haven’t been arrested entered the store and proceeded to use an unknown object to break open a glass case that contained purses and other items. The suspects then began to grab the items inside the case and put them in a bag before leaving without paying for the items. The suspect was arrested inside the 13th precinct on Sunday, March 8 at 11:45 a.m. and was charged with grand larceny.

Police said that the suspect also took a Givenchi purse from the store on February 11 around 7:15 p.m.

The suspect, along with two other men who weren’t arrested, also reportedly stole from the Guitar Center at 25 West 14th Street on February 12 around 2 p.m. Police said that while the man who was arrested distracted a store employee, the two other suspects grabbed a Taylor custom 12-string guitar with brown wood and ocean vine inlay.

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Opinion: Coming to our census

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

I must confess I do not much like filling our surveys or answering questionnaires. We all have busy lives with much to do and a lot to think about. However, the census material that is being sent out to every household this very week is very significant information to open and to read, and then to respond to the simple 10 questions. This is of critical importance to every New Yorker in particular. The stakes are very high for our city and state.

Every 10 years, the United States Constitution requires a tabulation of the total population of the nation, state by state, and community by community. The numbers that are yielded are not just interesting data, they are the basis for how much federal resources and political representation this state will receive relative to the rest of the nation. Ten years ago, we failed.

In 2010, only about 62% of all New Yorkers responded to the census questions. That compares unfavorably to the 76% response rate in the rest of the nation. That failure to respond has likely led to an undercount of persons living in New York State. The undercount has cost the State billions of dollars each year. A lower recorded population also impacts the number of Congressional seats that New York State is assigned and our strength in the Electoral College, which selects the President of the United States.

It is vitally important that New Yorkers not repeat that dismal showing again this go around. In baseball parlance, we need to step up to the plate!

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Random assaults up in Gramercy

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Following the arrest of a man wanted for a random attack in Union Square Park last week, Deputy Inspector Steven Hellman said at the 13th Precinct Community Council’s meeting on Tuesday that the neighborhood has seen a slight increase in unprovoked assaults recently.

Hellman noted the uptick after a woman at the meeting said that a homeless woman approached her and punched her in the head while she was waiting for the bus with her granddaughter.

“We’re seeing a lot of this even minor level harassment and assaults but we are making apprehensions,” he said, adding that the arrests have included homeless and emotionally disturbed individuals.

Hellman noted that officers have made an arrest on another random attack that occurred in Union Square Park, in which the suspect fractured the victim’s eye socket. A witness told police that he saw the victim and the suspect, 33-year-old Tyrone George, get into an argument inside the park on Tuesday, March 3 around 9:40 p.m.

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Local cops catch teens wanted for burglaries citywide

Cops at the 13th precinct were honored this week. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Multiple officers of the 13th precinct were honored with the Cop of the Month award at the most recent Community Council meeting this past Tuesday for catching a pair of teenagers responsible for late-night burglaries throughout the city and others wanted for various shoplifting incidents.

The officers on the night tour who were honored at the meeting included Sergeant Isaac Acevedo and police officers William Blum, Nicholas Clemente, John McCormick, Charles Morro and Robert Rufrano. The officers who work on the day tour who were honored were Lieutenant James Grillo, who will also be retiring soon, Sergeant Edward Faini and police officers Brendan Bellew, Danny Bermeo, Mahmoud Khaled, Thomas Knudsen, Joseph Orlando and Sutcliff Rattan.

Deputy Inspector Steven Hellman said that officers who work in the overnight hours spotted the suspects wanted for the burglaries, recognized because they had been caught on surveillance footage in previous incidents, but knew that the District Attorney’s office wouldn’t charge them just based on previous burglaries, so they had to catch them in the act.

“They followed them up Lexington Avenue into the 17th precinct and caught them on a live burg, and that closed out 35 burglaries citywide,” Hellman said.

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Tenants Association files lawsuit against Blackstone

Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg with local elected officials last Thursday (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association filed a lawsuit against property owner Blackstone last week in response to an attempt to deregulate more than 6,000 apartments.

Blackstone is attempting to deregulate units that are currently under the J-51 tax exemption, which expires at the end of June, and increase rents on those apartments for leases renewed or starting in July or later. The private equity firm is arguing that the regulatory agreement Blackstone signed with the city in 2015 supersedes the rent laws the state legislature passed last June, but tenant advocates and local elected officials argued at a press conference in Stuy Town last Thursday that the rent laws abolished deregulation all apartments, regardless of previous agreements.

“The new law is clear and unambiguous,” Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg said. “Blackstone Group is of the opinion that these pro-tenant reforms do not apply to them. We disagree. They cannot disregard state rent law and raise rents and deregulate units as if the law had never been changed.”

State elected officials at the press conference said that they were very specific when writing the rent laws that passed and that Blackstone was not interpreting the law as it was intended.

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Mayor provides updates about coronavirus at Bellevue

Mayor Bill de Blasio hands out fliers regarding COVID-19 preparedness in Union Square last Monday. (Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Mayor Bill de Blasio and health officials provided updates about the city’s response and approach to the coronavirus at Bellevue Hospital on Tuesday, with the mayor noting that the city is working to keep the public informed but emphasizing that information has been changing rapidly.

“I think we can all say with coronavirus we have rarely seen a situation that started with people not even understanding the disease to begin with because it was brand new – that’s been the whole international community, the medical community,” de Blasio said. “We’ve all had to learn by doing and our understanding of the best approaches keeps evolving, so you will hear change because the information is changing. But we are still in the middle of a fight right now.”

The mayor also emphasized that while the government is working to protect New Yorkers and prevent the spread of the virus, residents can help with their own actions.

“Everyone has to participate from those basic things, washing your hands, hand sanitizer, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze onto the kinds of decisions we make in our life, starting with being very sensitive to the vulnerable people,” he said. “We have seen this over and over again. It’s very consistent all over the world.”

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Stuy Town resident making Shakespeare easy

(From left to right) Actors Tommy Walters, Benny Salerno and Ethan Fox with director Catherine Lamm (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Longtime Stuy Town resident and theater director Catherine Lamm wants to make the Bard accessible for even the most Shakespeare-averse, with a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Players Theatre debuting on March 12.

Lamm said that this is the first Shakespeare play she’s done that’s so playful and “loose” and she’d like to direct others to be as accessible to theater-goers who might be Shakespeare-phobic, although she said the format likely wouldn’t work as well with some of the more serious plays.

“This is very playful and very interactive and I don’t think it would work for Julius Caesar, but it would work for the comedies,” she said.

Lamm said that she’s seen probably over 100 productions of the play, including a hip-hop production at Edinburgh’s theater festival that used only a small amount of the original text and a lot of their own interpretation.

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Letter to the editor, Mar. 12

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Questions about Blackstone’s agreement

1. Why doesn’t the expiration of J-51 allow Blackstone to deregulate the remaining stabilized apartments, if they leave 5000 affordable, per the agreement with NYC? (But which 5,000 will they choose?)

2. Who does this deregulation effort really affect, other than long term tenants? Market rate tenants get very little benefit from stabilization. Frankly, it feels like market rate tenants are subsidizing others. I believe stabilization started for good reasons, but that too many folks are just plain greedy.

3. Why don’t Roberts tenants, who not only received money, but had their rents “frozen/managed” till 2020, have to abide by that agreement and return to “normal,” which might mean destabilization in some cases? They signed an agreement, didn’t they?

Name withheld
Stuyvesant Town

Opinion: Science versus convenience

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

This week, the ban on issuance of plastic bags in supermarkets and other stores went into effect in New York State. It is inconvenient, to say the least. Customers must now either bring their own reusable bags or deal with the more cumbersome paper bags that these retail places will substitute. Yes, life is tough.

But science has proven that the billions of plastic bags in circulation poses a serious threat to our environment. They are not biodegradable. And when they inevitably find their way into our water systems, lakes, rivers, streams and oceans, they do major damage to our already fragile ecosystem. Aquatic life below the waves are choking and suffocating. This carnage to sea life damages the fishing industries. These plastic wraps is also a cause of massive pollution which adversely impacts the environment and us all.

Next year, new regulations are scheduled to be issued which will implement congestion pricing in New York City. It is intended to reduce the number of vehicles entering and clogging Midtown Manhattan. Private vehicles would be charged a new toll when entering the zone. This is intended to be a deterrent to driving in congested areas of Manhattan and instead encourage the use of mass transit.

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Tenants rally for rent rollback at Gracie Mansion

Members of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association joined other residents and tenant organizations to call for a rent rollback outside Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side last Wednesday night. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Met Council on Housing and other tenant advocacy groups rallied for a rent rollback outside Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side last Wednesday evening. Members of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association marched with residents from the 86th Street/Second Avenue Q station and joined the protest in front of the mayor’s residence, with tenant organizers leading chants while Mayor Bill de Blasio was reportedly enjoying a showing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway that evening.

Some protesters at the rally performed educational skits outlining the importance of attending the hearings for the Rent Guidelines Board where increases for rent-stabilized apartments are voted on and encouraged tenants to push for a rent rollback this year. Since de Blasio was elected in 2013, the RGB has approved a rent freeze on one-year leases for rent-stabilized tenants but last year approved increases of 1.5% for one-year leases and 2.5% for two-year leases. The last time that a rent freeze was approved in 2016.

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Second suspect arrested for 2019 robbery in Asser Levy Park

The suspect arrested last week was captured on surveillance footage at a nearby 7-Eleven shortly after the robbery.

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Police have arrested a second suspect who was wanted for a robbery that took place in Asser Levy Park in the pre-dawn hours of a late September morning last year. In addition to hitting the victim multiple times and stabbing him in the head, police said that the suspect who was arrested last week also forced the victim to remove his clothes and put on a dress.

The 25-year-old man was arrested for the September 30 robbery on Monday, February 24 inside the 13th precinct.

The victim, a 47-year-old Bronx resident, told police that he was walking near the park on East 23rd Street and Avenue C around 4 a.m. when the previously-arrested suspect, a 24-year-old man, grabbed him and pulled him behind the park. The victim said that the two suspects menaced him with a knife before taking his wallet and phone.

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Bill from Hoylman aims to protect consumers amid coronavirus fears

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

State Senator Brad Hoylman introduced legislation on Tuesday that would address price gouging of consumer medical supplies during a public health emergency in order to penalize retailers that take advantage of concerns about coronavirus and increase prices by more than 10% on products such as face masks and hand sanitizer.

“It’s said that after the storm come the vultures – and that’s exactly what could happen here if we don’t act now to stop price gouging in anticipation of the coronavirus outbreak here in New York,” Hoylman said. “Profiting off fear of disease is unconscionable. We can’t allow shady businesses to hike prices on the supplies New Yorkers need to stay safe and healthy, like hand sanitizer and face masks.”

Hoylman also noted that healthcare professionals have discouraged the use of face masks.

“The U.S. Surgeon General has made it clear that face masks won’t help healthy people avoid COVID-19: the best way to stay healthy is by washing hands regularly and getting the flu shot,” he added.

Under the new legislation, the New York State Attorney General could penalize retailers, manufactures and distributors who increase prices on these products. Prices on face masks and hand sanitizer have increased significantly in neighborhoods in Manhattan, including the Upper West Side and Chinatown.

The legislation would specifically amend the state’s price gouging statute in order to establish that an “unconscionable excessive price” is a price more than 10% higher than before the public health emergency began. The bill would ban stores from selling consumer medical supplies, including over-the-counter medications, hand sanitizer and face masks, at an unconscionably excessive price during a public health emergency.

The Attorney General would also be able to enforce a civil penalty of up to $25,000 against businesses that have been proven to have participated in price gouging.

In other countries where coronavirus is most prevalent, Amazon announced that third-party listings have unfairly charged customers for medical supplies, including in Italy and Australia.

Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced on Wednesday morning that three family members of the Westchester resident who was diagnosed with coronavirus earlier this week have also tested positive and two contacts have been transferred to Bellevue for testing. The three family members of the Westchester resident who tested positive include his two children and his wife, and all three remain in home isolation in Westchester.

The Westchester resident works at a law firm in Manhattan. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said on Tuesday that this is the first case of community spread of the disease in New York City, meaning that the source of the infection is unknown. The individual is currently hospitalized at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Manhattan and is in severe condition.

NYC Health+Hospitals is working closely with the Health Department, which has also conducted outreach and offered guidance to city hospitals and health providers about how to identify, isolate and inform the city about individuals who might need evaluation for COVID-19. The city’s Public Health Laboratory can now test for the infection, which allows for shorter turnaround time for test results compared to when samples had to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarters in Atlanta, and the Health Department this week will lower the threshold for people who get tested so that person-to-person transmission can be detected.

The infection can lead to fever, cough or shortness of breath and while come infections have resulted in severe illness or death, others have milder symptoms. The city is recommending that if individuals who have traveled to China, Iran, Italy, Japan or South Korea are experiencing fever, coughing or shortness of breath, they should stay home and avoid contact with others, and contact a health provider and tell them about their travel history. All New Yorkers are encouraged to cover their coughs and sneezes with their elbows and now hands, wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available and avoid touching their face with unwashed hands.