Friday, November 21, 2008

Hiram Monserrate: Creating A New Politics

Hiram Monserrate and Mike Schenkler


Last week, Hiram Monserrate was the man of the hour.

He set the standard by which City Council members will be judged in having input over redevelopment projects in their districts.

Championing low income and affordable housing, the rights of property owners, Monserrate stood up to the Mayor and his high-power Willets Point redevelopment effort, his Queens front headed by Claire Shulman, and prevailed over what appeared to be an unyielding City Hall onslaught.
For months, they painted Monserrate as the renegade, the self-serving politico who was preventing Willets Point, the blighted area north of Shea Stadium dominated by junkyards and chop shops, from becoming a true neighborhood and contributing to the local economy.

The redevelopment was needed to clean up the polluted soil and connect it to city water and sewer lines. Then there were housing units, roads, a hotel, a convention center, a neighborhood which would grow from the formerly polluted iron triangle.

And Hiram Monserrate said no. He said no without a greater commitment to affordable and low income housing and he said no to the City’s use of the threat of eminent domain to bully landowners from their property.

Sure the $3 billion plan made sense and will ultimately return to the city many times its investment. But did it make sense to the local community? To Monserrate’s constituents and local property owners?

Monserrate didn’t think so and stood his ground. And the Willets Point redevelopment forces tried to paint him as the villain. Months of lobbying, bullying, threats couldn’t make Monserrate blink.

For the second time this year, Monserrate, a former Marine and NY Police Officer, stared the power structure down and we watched the other side blink. Monserrate is going to the State Senate after bullying the Queens Democratic organization and incumbent State Senator John Sabini into handing over Sabini’s Senate seat to avoid doing battle with him.

And now, in Willets Point, the city blinked and compromised, Hiram won, and it appears the community was served. The revamped plan includes an 850-seat school and a mandatory level of permanent affordable housing — 35 percent of the 5,500 planned units must be affordable, with 250 units exclusively for low income earners. Compromises were also reached on the use of eminent domain.

More importantly, Hiram elevated himself and the role of the Councilman in controlling the development process in his community.

“The end game here was always to ensure that we had a project and a plan that was fair to all parties,” he said, “I think we’ve achieved that.”

Hiram, never the Council consensus builder, marshaled the council members and demonstrated all land use fights do not get decided by the Mayor.

Yes, one little Councilman stood up. And whatever baggage he may have carried previously, he is not so little anymore.

We should all watch him in the State Senate.

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