An Administration That Couldn’t Beat the Greenies Joins Them

Elizabeth Yeampierre is not the cheerleading type. As executive director of an environmental and anti-poverty organization in Sunset Park, she is most often in the role of protester, marching down the street with a bullhorn and placard.

But on the Monday morning after Michael Bloomberg announced the details of his PlaNYC—the 23-year, 127-point sustainability plan that is supposed to create a “greener, greater New York”—Ms. Yeampierre found herself in the rarest of positions for an advocate: standing on the steps of City Hall, shouting words of approval for New York’s billionaire Republican mayor into a microphone with unabashed gusto.

“Today is a day of congratulations, and a day of celebration for communities of color all over the city of New York,” she said, as a motley crowd of advocates and activists fanned out behind her. “The environmental justice community stands with the mayor today, and with this coalition in support of a vision whose time has come.”

The activists clapped enthusiastically.

In the days since the mayor declared his plan for an eco-friendly New York, many environmental advocates have found themselves in the unusual position of playing booster to a man who, in his words, has “never been accused of being a tree-hugger.” Whatever disagreements they’ve had with the administration seem, for the most part, to have receded into the hazy past.

Part of the reason for advocates’ enthusiasm is that PlaNYC’s environmental proposals are, in fact, fairly comprehensive: a plan to plant a million trees over the next ten years, the creation of an energy efficiency board and “greening” of the building code, the promotion of clean-burning heating fuel and—most controversially—congestion pricing.

But the plan’s popularity among environmental advocates also owes a good deal to the systematic and somewhat novel process by which these advocates were brought into the administration’s fold.

During their five years in City Hall, the mayor and his aides have learned a lot about broad-based community participation and the role it plays in getting a plan passed. It’s a lesson that they have not always learned the easy way, as the 2003 fight over nonpartisan elections and the battle over the city’s Olympics bid both made excruciatingly clear.

But there have been signs of change since then, like the discussions between neighborhood environmental advocates and the administration that took place around the mayor’s solid waste management plan, which was passed in July 2006. And, as the mayor’s office embarked on its 2030 plan, it consciously set out to expand on this new, friendlier outreach model.

“I think the plan was astonishingly comprehensive and deep on the environmental issues,” said Joan Byron, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative. “And I’m not someone who is either institutionally or individually inclined to be a cheerleader.”

“Nothing has ever been done like this,” said one member of the Bloomberg administration. “We decided early on that we want to have a plan that everybody will support.”

Towards this end, the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability—the bureaucratically-titled nerve center of the PlaNYC operation—began an aggressive outreach program as far back as last fall.

They cultivated a carefully chosen “sustainability advisory board” that included environmentalists, transportation experts, real estate leaders, business executives, and labor leaders—and prominently featured a handful of vocal City Hall critics, like subway-rider advocate Gene Russianoff and Central Labor Council director Ed Ott.

(“A lot of the people we’re working with now, the administration has never had a good relationship with,” said the City Hall source.)

They held 11 town hall meetings. They called on the services of Mayor’s Office of Legislative Affairs Deputy Director Eddie Bautista, a former community activist who proved vital in their outreach to various advocacy organizations. And they offered on-site presentations to community organizations, where they discussed issues like green roofs and congestion pricing.

Many of the environmental warriors, as well as members of the transportation and labor contingents, were skeptical at the beginning of the discussions, uncertain of this new relationship with City Hall. And at least one criticized the mayor’s office as being not particularly “engaged” early on during the conversations.

But others described a process of “intense” meetings—dozens of hours’ worth during the last few months—in which the city solicited opinions and incorporated them into a final plan in a way that gave the environmental advocates something to bring back to their constituents.

Ms. Yeampierre, for instance, who played an active part on the advisory board, said she was “ecstatic” that the mayor had included elements in his plan that would benefit low-income New Yorkers, like brownfield remediation and redevelopment. Ms. Byron, who was not on the advisory board but attended several meetings with the administration, applauded the mayor’s plan to monitor area quality “at the neighborhood level” as well as the transportation improvements planned for hard-to-reach outer-borough neighborhoods. And Ashok Gupta, an energy expert from the National Resources Defense Council who also sat on the advisory board, hailed the “comprehensive nature and the scale” of the plan’s energy proposals, particularly its strategies for boosting efficiency in existing buildings, all of which, he predicted, could eventually push the city beyond its 30 percent emissions reduction goal.

Still, for all the startled enthusiasm, there were some murmurs of disappointment from the environmental gallery.

One complaint focused on the absence of a cross-harbor freight tunnel from the list of proposed projects—an initiative, Ms. Byron said, that might have been “the one silver bullet that would really make a huge dent in the amount of truck traffic.”

(The administration contends that the rail tunnel would add more congestion.)

Another, voiced by the NRDC’s Brad Sewell and Riverkeeper’s Alex Matthiessen—both fans of the overall plan—focused on the clean water initiatives, which they say didn’t go far enough.

They expressed concerns that the plan didn’t include specific measures for protecting the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and said they were disappointed that it seemed to focus its clean-up efforts on tributaries, rather than on major waterways and beaches.

Majora Carter, the MacArthur Award-winning director of a group called Sustainable South Bronx, wished that the plan had done more to link environmental sustainability to economic development
strategies. “How are we going to help all these million new people work?” she asked, alluding to the prediction that the city will expand by nearly one million residents by 2030.

“I don’t think they meant for the plan to be complete,” she said, “but it seems as though they would want to include something like that.”

Still, most environmental leaders have been loath to jump into critic-mode. In the topsy-turvy political climate the plan has induced, they now have new battles to fight.

“I think overcoming the resistance from various quarters is going to be the next challenge, and that’s why a lot of us are really calibrating what we say,” Ms. Byron said. “We do think the administration could go farther, but in some way we want to be a counterweight to the people who say ‘you’ve gone too far.’”

An Administration That Couldn’t Beat the Greenies Joins Them