Tunnel Vision

Riders on the L: Councilman Stephen Levin

The two-term councilman has had to deal with the impacts of hyper-development, rapid socioeconomic change, and now a shutdown that will take away the northern sector of his district’s lifeline for 15 months.

by John Surico
Jul 7 2017, 4:28pm

Photo by Jason Bergman

He had worked as a telemarketer, a waiter, an artist's assistant, a paralegal, at a bookstore, and even doing flooring, but it was a job on a political campaign for New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez that brought Stephen Levin to the Bushwick area of Brooklyn in 2004, just a year out of college. Stepping out at the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue L train stop then, Levin, a native of Plainfield, New Jersey, was lost. "At the time, Bushwick still had more in common with the Bushwick of the 1990s than the Bushwick of the 2010s," he recalled later.

This was long before a Starbucks opened next to a Planet Fitness, the only signs of coming change then being Life Café 983, Kings County Bar, and a coffee shop/DVD rental spot called The Archive. Levin was tasked with community organizing, on issues such as predatory lending and hazardous housing conditions. He relocated to the L train stop at Morgan Avenue, and lived there for five years, working off the nearby DeKalb Avenue stop. And like thousands of New Yorkers, his livelihood soon depended on the train, and he, too, watched the gentrification creep in, one station at a time.

Fast-forward to 2017, and Levin, who is now 36, represents District 33 in the City Council, a lengthy slice of Brooklyn that includes miles of its waterfront, from Greenpoint to Cobble Hill, or, in other words, some of the most prized real estate in America. Elected in 2009, the young, two-term councilman has had to deal with the impacts of hyper-development, rapid socioeconomic change, and now, a shutdown that will take away the northern sector of his district's lifeline, stranding his constituents for 15 months straight.

In terms of appearances, Levin fits his role well: a scrawny white guy living in Greenpoint with his wife and newborn child, who wears wayfarers and toys with film cameras for fun. He looks much like the kind of person who's moved here in recent years, blissfully unaware of what their arrival has wrought. Only the latter part doesn't seem to apply to Levin—even sitting in the back of an atypical Williamsburg cafe on Bedford Avenue, he still appears fully aware of what's happened to the district, and what it's meant for its residents.

His staff, he recalled, found it nearly impossible to find apartments in Bushwick online that would take housing vouchers from the homeless. Meanwhile, constituents constantly tell him they're just scraping by, with rents some of the highest in New York City. And what's really stopping gentrification, he asked, from pushing further east, into more disadvantaged areas?

"Obviously all of that was entirely fueled by the L train, and there has been significant negative impact," he said. "That's just the trend, and it'll take another 15, 20 years, but there's just such deep market forces that are not controllable from a public policy perspective. From a city government perspective, nobody's really come up with 'How do you stop it?' or 'How do you contain it?'"

The shutdown, he argued, could provide some sort of relief to tenants, if only temporarily, and maybe slow the market's stampede. But since the shutdown was announced, Levin has received an onslaught of complaints from business owners, who are increasingly fretting the April 2019 deadline. "I think there's enough of a community in Brooklyn, and hopefully that'll sustain these businesses," he said. "At the same time, the weekend, bridge-and-tunnel crowd is really important to their livelihood, and those are make-and-break weekends."

As a result, Levin is hoping to persuade the city's Department of Finance to reconsider their commercial tax assessments during the shutdown—regional tax rates that are based on foot traffic, and, in this area, go for big bucks. Sky-high taxes lead to sky-high rents, and so lowering them, he said, could potentially bring down lease costs. "They can say, 'Look, during those 15 months, that assessment is there, and upon completion, it reverts,'" Levin explained. "Why not? I think it's within their jurisdiction."

The idea of zones in which commercial taxes were brought down—or, on weekends, sales taxes disappear—was voiced to me by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce's president, Andrew Hoan, as well. It is a proposal that would require state approval, to some degree, yet given the current relationship between the city's mayor and state's governor, particularly on the subway system's meltdown (read: not the greatest), clear coordination may be a pipe dream.

"When stuff goes wrong, like over the shutdown, I think it's going to be both the city and state's responsibility," says Levin, before adding later, "A significant danger is that the feud between the city and the state impacts what happens here. That's a legitimate danger, which is really sad, and really messed up." Levin noted that at a recent meeting with city agencies and the MTA, the Empire State Development Corporation, which is run by Albany, wasn't present.

Luckily, he pointed out, the shutdown is two years away, offering officials time to plan. Levin said he's periodically meeting with the MTA and the city's Department of Transportation, which regulates the streets, to offer feedback on transit options. Adding no more than 20 minutes to a commute each way, he stated, should be the goal—anything more than that will leave commuters frustrated, having lost out on valuable time at work, or at home.

A few weeks ago, the Councilman made headlines after voicing frustration with the MTA's decision to add 200 diesel buses to the streets of North Brooklyn during the shutdown. Along with fellow Councilman Rafael Espinal, he called for electric buses to, at least, cut back on carbon emissions from already-packed streets. "It's an opportunity," he noted. "It seems like a common sense thing to do."

Congestion, Levin said, is of utmost concern. He applauded the idea of an HOV lane on the Williamsburg Bridge, but the reality of Ubers and Lyfts further clogging the streets during the shutdown is very real. Levin would know: two years ago, he co-authored a bill that sought to place a short-term cap on the number of ride-share vehicles in New York City, as the city studied the effects these services had on traffic. He returned from his honeymoon in Nebraska to a public ad campaign aimed at him, with a flyer waiting at his door that read, "Why is Stephen Levin leaving you stranded?" The bill ultimately failed, although another study came out more recently, suggesting that these cars do, in fact, lead to more congestion.

Going forward, Levin hopes to see an "aggressive" mitigation plan from the city and state agencies; one that does everything in their authority to downsize whatever impact the shutdown may have on the local economy. What Levin said he doesn't want to see is another Second Avenue Subway scenario, where solutions were short, while scaffolds stayed up for years.

"As far as I can tell, from a small business perspective, I haven't seen anything that's been applied elsewhere that's been very effective. I didn't see anything with the Second Avenue Subway that really helped those businesses," he said. "I want to see what they're bringing to the table, in terms of relief, and not just an advertising campaign. They should do like 'Shop the L Train,' or 'Shop Bedford Avenue,' but that has to be like one of ten things that they're doing."

"From a government perspective, it becomes very general term—'oh, small businesses,'" he said later. "But when you're talking about actual, individual businesses that have put their life savings into this, and that's their livelihood, then the obligation becomes much stronger… I don't want to see anyone go out of business because of this."

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