Pamela Lippe was excited. On Sunday afternoon, the green consultant and executive director of Earth Day New York for 17 years was sitting in one of the hundreds of white and blue chairs lining the American Museum of Natural History’s Millstein Hall of Ocean Life, anxious to hear Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s speech revealing PlaNYC, the city’s 127 new initiatives that are supposed to make New York City “greener” and “greater” by 2030.
Ms. Lippe, dressed in a gray suit and armed with pins advertising her carbon reduction campaign, Count Down Your Carbon, called the Mayor’s plan “courageous” for proposing eight-dollar tolls on drivers commuting into Manhattan below 86th Street.
“He’s going to catch a lot of heat for congestion pricing but it’s the right thing to do,” she told The Observer.
Among the initiatives, which include building more affordable housing, revitalizing green spaces and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, Mayor Bloomberg singled out congestion pricing, “since we’re at the Museum of Natural History…” as “the elephant in the room,” and received a modest clap from the crowd.
More than 500 city officials, environmental advocates and planners huddled in the atrium’s low-lit, blue-tinged exhibit for Mayor Bloomberg’s speech. An enormous, 94-foot long, 21,000-pound model of a blue whale hung ominously over the crowd, its nose nearly touching down on the press video cameras set up in the back of the room.
Attendees included City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Mayor David Dinkins, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and other City Council members and officials. Seats quickly filled, and onlookers stood by exhibits of dolphins and tuna, and crowded the stairs leading down into the exhibit to hear the Mayor.
Straphangers Campaign senior attorney Gene Russianoff, sporting a pink tie, said he is “happy, happy, happy” about the congestion-pricing initiative.
“New York will get much better mass transit that they deserve and the traffic relief that they want,” he told The Observer. “My mother commuted into the city for 35 years, and she’d think it’d be ridiculous to drive in.”
The presentation was launched with a taped introduction of the Mayor by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which he called Mr. Bloomberg an “environmental warrior” and his “soul mate.” Mr. Bloomberg then strode down an aisle between the chairs from the back of the room. African drumbeats pounded through the speakers and bright lights illuminated his walk to the podium, which skirted two giant television screens and billboards displaying PlaNYC-inspired art drawn by PS215 students in Brooklyn.
When the Mayor described the plan as, “The broadest scale attack on the causes of global warming and environmental degradation that any city has ever undertaken,” a sign emblazoned with the phrase flashed on the screen, like an “Applause” signal at live sitcom recordings.
The presentation was sandwiched between still-life displays of dolphins and tusked walruses. When Mayor Bloomberg discussed the city’s rivers and creeks, he said “they nurtured an incredible diversity of marine life, some of it on display here in this hall–though perhaps not the giant walruses to my left,” which elicited a chuckle from the crowd.
There were a few muffled snickers and scoffs when the Mayor said he would curb water pollution by “planting water-cleansing mollusks.” One man in a sand-colored business suit turned to his redheaded neighbor and arched his eyebrow.
Mr. Bloomberg intermittently pulled out props from the podium, as if he were a magician yanking rabbits from a magic hat. “I just had an idea,” he said before pulling out a 26-watt, energy-saving light bulb. “I’ve already started to replace the bulbs in my house, and our City Hall. None of us can afford to waste money.”
Did the Mayor inspire Liam Kavanagh, First Deputy Parks Commissioner, to start replacing bulbs in his home? “My wife already started doing that,” he chuckled. “So we’re ahead of the curve, on that front.”
Mr. Kavanagh said the presentation was “inspiring;” it included montage shots of New Yorkers speaking during town meetings and public hearings and city officials poring over documents during meetings of the Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Board.
“I’m scared,” said Marlen Waaijer, a computer programmer and leader of the Norton Basin Edgemere Stewardship Group and member of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance.
Ms. Waaijer, who wore a green scarf, explained that her neighborhood in Rockaway, Queens, has turned into a “gold rush of gentrification,” and she hopes that more money will be used to protect the city from the effects of global warming.
She called Far Rockaway a “barrier island” that will protect New York from rising sea levels and tidal waves. “When the big storm comes, we’ll all be paying for it,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
Mayor Bloomberg received a standing ovation just before the end of his speech, when he said, “If we don’t act now, when? And if we don’t act, who will?”
“I’ve seen the ebb and flow, and I think people are really starting to wake up to the environmental and global issues,” said Ms. Lippe. “For New York to be doing this and looking into all of the impacts they have, it’s incredibly powerful, and it’ll inspire cities from the rest of the country and hopefully all over the world.”