By Jon Lentz
Manhattan’s East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station has long divided people into two camps.
Next year it may divide the candidates running for mayor of New York City.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other elected officials who don’t live near the defunct facility on the Upper East Side have pushed to reopen it as a way to haul less garbage by truck, ship more by barge and distribute trash facilities more fairly across the five boroughs.
On the other side of the issue are local lawmakers and community groups worried about noise, pollution and the safety risks of local garbage trucks. They have filed a series of lawsuits to block the planned reopening of the facility, which was closed in 1999.
Some candidates have been openly supportive of the station, which was included in the city’s solid-waste-management plan in 2006. Quinn, the candidate most closely associated with the project, has been a staunch supporter.
Last June she led the Council to allocate capital dollars to build the station after the mayor’s office had decided to postpone the project. She went to then-Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and convinced him to provide funding for the station and three others.
“The building of marine transfer stations has been done with community input, and we expect New Yorkers in every neighborhood to come together and do their part,” Robin Levine, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said last year. “In fact, Speaker Quinn’s own district on Manhattan’s West Side will include a transfer station to help ensure the borough is taking full responsibility for its waste.”
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller John Liu cast votes for the marine transfer station when they were both in the City Council, and neither one has changed his position.
Mike Loughran, a spokesman for Liu, said the city has to make sure it has the necessary infrastructure to meet the growing demand for waste removal.
“This is an issue of borough equity,” Loughran said. “The community has every right to be heard on this issue and has even taken their concerns to court. Comptroller Liu will keep a close eye on this project, as well as the spending associated.”
But among the other Democratic candidates, the positions are less clear-cut.
Bill Thompson, who ran against Bloomberg in 2009, said he still had a lot more to learn about the facility and had not yet taken a position. “I’ve had one meeting with the residents and they laid out why they thought it was not a good site and why it was not cost-efficient,” he said.
David Mack, the vice president of Residents for Sane Trash Solutions, said his organization has recently started reaching out to the candidates to make the case for leaving the facility closed.
“We believe that it would be a very important question for all candidates in the primary season, especially given that Speaker Quinn seems to be supporting the construction of the facility,” said Mack.
Perhaps more than any other candidate, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer exemplifies the risks of explicitly supporting or opposing the facility. The Upper East Side is a key bastion of support for the borough president, so supporting the facility could result in campaign dollars drying up. Opposing it could hurt him in the outer boroughs.
Yet in 2004, then-Assemblyman Stringer was among the lawmakers who criticized the plan, calling on the city to build the waste transfer station in a commercially zoned location somewhere else.
“I’m here today because I believe that siting such a facility is a process ripe with difficulty,” Stringer said at the time. “While we acknowledge the need for a station, no one desires a waste transfer station in their backyard. They’re right, it does not belong in this backyard, but it also doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.”
Asked about his stance now, Stringer refused to answer. Josh Getlin, Stringer’s spokesman, declined to say whether the borough president is still opposed to the project, supportive of it, or neutral.
“Since becoming borough president in 2006, Stringer has committed his office to working with city agencies to minimize any negative impacts to the Upper East Side and Harlem communities that may result from the construction and ongoing operation of the facility,” Getlin said in a statement.
One of the opponents of the transfer station is Charles Dorego, a senior vice president of Glenwood Management Corp. and a member of the Gracie Point Community Council, another group opposed to the facility. Glenwood owns a number of buildings that face Asphalt Green, the recreational space next to the marine transfer station.
Dorego has also raised $149,900 for Stringer, making him not only the borough president’s biggest campaign bundler but the biggest bundler for any city candidate. But Dorego said his support for the borough president isn’t tied to his views on the marine transfer station.
“I don’t support anybody based on one particular issue or not,” Dorego said. “I met him personally through this thing years ago, and we’ve become friends since, and I’m a supporter of his. I don’t necessarily tie my support to him to the marine transfer station, because I’m not naive enough to think the borough president could stop this plan. He has absolutely no control over it whatsoever. You could talk to the person who lives on 79th Street about that.”
But one longtime observer of the controversy over the marine transfer station said that Stringer has “always been purposefully vague.”
“His thing is always ‘I’ve never wanted to directly oppose the East 91st Street Waste Transfer Station, because I don’t want to alienate communities of color,’ but at the same time he has been willing to smack around the process, how it came about,” the source said. “He’s attacked the process, not the site. So he thinks that gets some goodwill with the community here. He’s basically playing both sides.”
If nothing else, there is digital evidence that offers a hint of where Stringer’s loyalties actually lie: On Facebook, the borough president “likes” Residents for Sane Trash Solutions, the group opposed to the transfer station.
This article first appeared in the May 7, 2012, edition of City&State.
Tags: Bill de Blasio, christine quinn, East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station, East 91st Street Waste Transfer Station, harlem, John Liu, Mayor Bloomberg, Residents for Sane Trash Solutions, Robin Levine, Scott Stringer, Stephen Goldsmith
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