In a wide-ranging conversation with the Chronicle’s editorial staff last Friday, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) highlighted the expansion of Jackson Heights’ Travers Park, the leasing of an empty commercial space at a nearby 7 Train terminal, and the creation of the 37th Road Plaza — which some Bangladeshi groups have opposed — as highlights of his accomplishments to date.
He also weighed in on a number of issues relating to the city at large, including his ongoing support of the living wage bill, his distaste for some of the NYPD’s practices, and why he strongly supports the removal of churches from the city’s schools.
When asked if he would be running for reelection in 2013, Dromm, who beat out incumbent Councilwoman Helen Sears in September 2009, answered, “Absolutely.”
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. Looking back at his administration to date, he said, “the biggest thing we’ve done is to preserve open space.”
This includes his efforts to expand Travers Park, on 34th Avenue between 77th and 78th streets — one of Jackson Heights’ lone green spaces — by acquiring land from the Garden School, a private institution across the street, which Dromm said would nearly double the park’s size.
Negotiations to buy the school’s yard first began in August 2010, he said. The councilman eventually secured $4 million — $1 million from his funds and $3 million from the City Council’s Queens delegation — along with an additional $1 million from Borough President Helen Marshall, to buy the land. And despite a competing bid for the yard from a developer early last year, Dromm said the “signing on the dotted line” for the green space would take place soon.
Turning to the creation of the 37th Road Plaza — the stretch of the road between 73rd and 74th streets was closed to traffic last September — Dromm emphasized he continues to believe the space and related traffic changes are a boon for the community, despite the much-publicized discontent of a group of Bangladeshi businesses located on or near the plaza.
“They’re too late to the table,” he said of the dissenters. “They’re going to have to adjust.”
The process that led to the creation of the plaza took three years, Dromm said. A Department of Transportation study on the area had input from “close to 500 people,” but all six businesses on the particular stretch of 37th Road affected “chose not to participate.”
One of the factors hurting businesses there, Dromm added, was moving a bus route from 73rd Street to 75th Street, something he said has reduced travel time by eight minutes.
Increased congestion as the result of a new grocery store that may open on the plaza, however, has Dromm concerned. A part of the marquee of the old Eagle Theater on the plaza has already come down, even as Dromm continues to hope the owner of the building can be convinced not to allow the store.
“My hope is that the business owners will work with us,” Dromm said. The store would not be a small one, but would sell “50-pound bags of rice” and other goods in large quantities.
“It’s effectively like putting a Costco in the middle of a residential area,” he said.
Turning to development nearby that he was pleased with, Dromm noted that Italian chain restaurant Famous Famiglia will be renting a two-story, 4,000-square-foot space in the 7 train terminal on 75th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, which has been empty for eight years. He said he began looking for people to lease the space as early as December 2009, before he had even taken office, and that the restaurant was a key component of the area’s overall economic development.
But he did not mince words when it came to the MTA.
“They basically are our worst enemies in terms of economic development,” he said, referring not only to the agency’s seeming inability to rent the space in the past, but also to the persistent pigeon poop problem around the 7 train’s Jackson Heights station.
Dromm went on to address citywide concerns, including his ongoing support for the living wage bill, a compromise version of which was recently proposed by Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The bill would raise the wages of workers in developments that have received subsidies to $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.50 without. But with Quinn’s compromise, the raised wages would only apply to building service employees at such projects, and not necessarily the employees of any businesses that rent space from them.
“I believe in paying workers well,” Dromm said simply. “Especially where you’re giving tax abatements, then I think the city should be an advocate” for workers, he added.
Referring to the Queens Center Mall, where some tenants, such as J.C. Penney’s, have nonunionized employees, Dromm said he is for the workers.
“What we’re asking from Macerich [the Mall’s owner] is only neutrality,” he said.
Beyond the living wage bill, citywide issues Dromm addressed included the police practice of stop and frisk and the NYPD’s widespread surveillance of Muslim communities.
“I think Ray Kelly is very popular,” Dromm said, adding he’s “surprised at how teflon [Kelly] is,” referring to the commisioner’s seeming invicibility.
“We’ve seen police corruption all over the place.” Surveilling Muslim civilians is, to Dromm, the beginning of a “slippery slope.”
Rounding up the meeting, Dromm turned to the issue of the separation of church and schools, as churches continue to battle a Department of Education order banning any religious organization from renting space in city schools.
Dromm strongly supports the separation, by and large because of what he characterized as insidious attempts on the parts of churches and other organizations to “evangelize” to public school students.
“They are calling this church planting,” he said. Some of the churches in the city aren’t just in a school “every Sunday,” he said, “but week after week after week.”
Dromm said he had previously supported efforts to remove the Boy Scouts from schools by and large because of the organization’s refusal to accept gay members or leaders.
When asked whether his holding the occasional public meeting in a church or synagogue was at all hypocritical, the councilman answered that he pays full rent for such spaces, while religious organizations get a subsidized rent in the schools they occupy.
At the meeting’s end, Dromm proudly identified himself as one of the City Council’s most “progressive” members, adding that treading the “middle of the road” was not the reason he had taken up office. “I enjoy being a progressive voice on these issues,” he said.