New York Taxi Commission Puts $20 Million In Medallion Fees On Hold

By Rachel Kaufman

New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) has agreed to pause the collection of nearly $20 million in medallion renewal fees which would have been due this week in an effort to give cab drivers some relief, the New York Post reports.

The city typically charges medallion renewal fees of between $540 and $1,650 every two years, according to the Post.

Councilmember Mark Levine has introduced a bill to study the “problem of medallion owners with excessive debt” and a companion bill to provide financial and mental health counseling to drivers, and he called the TLC’s move “a short-term step to provide some relief to the drivers while we work out a longer-term policy.”

“Independent owner-drivers who played by the rules set by the city are now enduring extraordinary financial hardships through absolutely no fault of their own,” Levine said in a statement, reported by the Daily News. “After having bought an asset because they had a guarantee from the city about its underlying value, our city has failed these small business owners.”

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi said that the “renewal fee is one more payment for medallion owners at a time when every penny counts,” according to the Post.

Taxi medallions, which once were valued as high as $1.3 million, according to the NY Daily News, are now worth about a tenth of that, but many drivers either took out enormous loans to buy their own or borrowed cash against the medallions’ value. Melrose Credit Union, which issued many of the loans, is now insolvent. The federal government is now holding the medallion loans, Documented NY reported in September, and once the government took over the loans, it became less responsive, drivers said. Many drivers took out loans in the six figures.

Seven for-hire drivers have committed suicide since November 2017, the Post said, with many citing crushing debt as the reason. Taxi drivers have turned to blaming TLC commissioner Joshi, calling for her firing and chasing her away from a vigil for Uber driver Fausto Luna, who jumped in front of a subway car in September.

The TLC doesn’t have authority to regulate ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai told AM New York. Only the City Council can.

This summer, New York’s City Council voted to cap the number of app-based cars on the road as well as mandate minimum pay for drivers. Uber was “none too pleased” by the vote, as Next City reported at the time, but the move could be a boon for drivers if it reduces competition.

Uber driver Tidiane Samassa wrote in an op-ed for the NY Daily News that “sometimes it now takes me over an hour driving around before I get a passenger, because all around me there are thousands of other for-hire cars also empty. All of us are competing for a smaller slice of the pie.”

As for the medallion fees, the city is reserving the right to collect them later, after Levine’s bills move through the legislative process, the NY Daily News reported.

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NYC failed to enforce water tank law, council health chair finds

By Frank G. Runyeon

At a New York City Council hearing on Tuesday, health officials were under pressure to respond to reports of neglected drinking water tanks across the city – and they downplayed the risks.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine, who chairs the Health Committee, stressed the need for greater regulation at the oversight hearing, bemoaning the lax oversight by health and buildings officials. After learning that neither agency had issued a single violation for damaged water tanks in the last year, presumably because no building owner had self-reported deficiencies, Levine concluded that surprise onsite inspections must be required to keep building owners honest.

“Either we have a pristine stock of water tanks and everyone is telling the truth and no violations are warranted, or there are defects which are not being reported or are being inaccurately reported,” Levine said. “And we don’t have a system to catch that,” Levine said. “It strains belief that there would be no defects. So, it sounds to me like we have a failure to enforce for the physical integrity of the tanks.”

Health officials disagreed.

“I think we really have an enforcement system that is properly tailored to the extremely low risk here,” said Corinne Schiff, the city’s deputy commissioner of environmental health. “We’ve never linked disease to a drinking water tank.”

Health officials insisted that the current inspection regime was sufficient, and offered only tepid support for proposed legislation that would broaden and strengthen oversight of the thousands of wooden rooftop water tanks that supply city dwellers with water for drinking, bathing and cooking.

The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a long history of resisting reforms to the laws governing the city’s iconic wooden drinking water tanks. Over the last 10 years, however, city lawmakers have passed laws to add some measure of accountability to a century-old water delivery method that was maintained purely on an honor system before 2009.

In a preamble to the proposed reforms, a New York City Council Health Committee report cited recent public concern over revelations of neglect and contamination in the city’s water tanks detailed in a City & State investigative series and subsequent emergency action by Council Speaker Corey Johnson as catalysts for the proposed changes.

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NYC to waive $12M in renewal fees for taxi medallion owners

By Ameena Walker

The value of yellow taxi medallions has been plummeting amid competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft and in June, things hit a new low when it was announced 139 medallions would head to bankruptcy auction. The medallions were once worth as much as $1.3 million but have recently been auctioned off for as little as $160,000.

In an attempt to give taxi medallion owners a much-needed lifeline, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has announced that it will waive $1,100 in renewal fees for the city’s 11,286 medallion owners, reports the New York Daily News. This amounts to more than $12.4 million in relief from the city and the de Blasio administration.

The waive was advocated for by City Councilmember Mark Levine, who also introduced legislation for the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) to conduct a study on the economic hardships that medallion owners are facing. “Independent owner-drivers who played by the rules set by the city are now enduring extraordinary financial hardships through absolutely no fault of their own,” said Levine in a statement. “After having bought an asset because they had a guarantee from the city about its underlying value, our city has failed these small business owners.”

At least six taxi drivers have taken their own lives, many due to the mounting economic burdens they face as yellow taxi ridership continues to decline.

In August, the New York City Council approved of legislation that placed a temporary cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles provided by companies like Uber and Lyft. The cap was prompted after the city estimated that there are now more than 100,000 licensed for-hire vehicles on the city’s streets, impacting traffic and transit. The temporary cap will allow the city to further study these impacts.

Meanwhile, the TLC has debuted a new smartphone app, called Waave, that is part of a two-year pilot program and offers yellow and green taxi passengers to get upfront, surge-free fare pricing, as well as estimated arrival times before they hail a trip. The program is also offered in the outer boroughs.

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TLC waives nearly $20 million in taxi fees in response to cabby suicides

By Danielle Furfaro

The city will apply the brakes on millions of dollars in fees due this week from taxi-medallion owners in an attempt to stem a rash of cabby suicides.

Taxi and Limousine Commission head Meera Joshi agreed to waive what would amount to nearly $20 million in fees to give struggling medallion owners some breathing room.

She made the move after nearly a year of driver deaths led to mounting criticism from other cabbies, pols and city officials.

Councilman Mark Levine (D-Washington Heights) has been pushing legislation to provide longer-term solutions for medallion owners and asked for the break for taxi drivers who are already on the brink financially.

“This is a short-term step to provide some relief to the drivers while we work out a longer-term policy,” said Levine.

“It’s critical that we take steps to help out the drivers who have seen their life savings evaporate through no fault of their own.”

The city usually requires hacks to pay $1,650 every two years — a biennial $550 taxi-medallion renewal, six $90 inspection fees and a $10 renewal for the medallion tin. Handicapped-accessible medallion owners only have to pay $540 for the inspections.

With 11,286 regular medallions on the streets and 2,301 accessible ones, that’s nearly $20 million in fees that the city is now waiving.
And all of that was set to come due this week.

“Absolutely anything could help out right now,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “People are struggling and they would definitely appreciate it.”

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi, who has been scorned by taxi drivers for not doing enough to help them, agreed that the hacks need a hand.

“The renewal fee is one more payment for medallion owners at a time when every penny counts,” said Joshi. “It is certainly prudent to pause collection of that fee while [Levine’s] bill moves through the legislative process and, if passed, the study it requires would be in motion.”

The city could try to recoup the fees in the future.

Levine’s bill would require the TLC to conduct a study of medallion owners’ and drivers’ debt and propose ways to help them out.

Seven for-hire drivers — three of them cabbies — have committed suicide over ruined finances since November.

The most recent was Uber driver Fausto Luna, 58, who jumped in front of an A train on Sept. 26 because of massive debt.

In June, cash-strapped yellow cabby Abdul Saleh, 59, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

In May, yellow cab driver Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow, 56, jumped into the East River.

In March, cabbie Nicanor Ochisor, 65, hanged himself in his garage in Maspeth, Queens.

Black car driver Douglas Schifter, 61, killed himself with a shotgun outside City Hall on Feb. 5, leaving a scathing note blaming the city for his woes.

In December 2017, livery hack Danilo Corporan Castillo, 57, wrote a suicide note on the back of a summons and jumped out the window of his Manhattan apartment.

A month earlier, livery driver Alfredo Perez hanged himself.

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Brooklyn Official Says He Will Carry a Gun Whenever He Enters a House of Worship

By Andy NewmanNate Schweber and Luis Ferré-Sadurní

As the nation reeled from Saturday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the borough president of Brooklyn — whose county is home to more Jews than any other in the country — said on Sunday that he would begin carrying a gun whenever he attends religious services.

“From now on,” said the borough president, Eric L. Adams, a retired captain of the New York Police Department, “I will bring my handgun every time I enter a church or synagogue.”

Mr. Adams, a Democrat and 22-year veteran of the Police Department, made his remarks at a news conference outside a Jewish family services center in the Midwood neighborhood, home to one of New York City’s highest concentrations of Orthodox Jews.

The Police Department already instructs active officers to carry their service weapons while off duty, with few exceptions. Retired officers are allowed to carry concealed weapons under federal law if they pass a marksmanship test.

Mr. Adams, who spoke outside Ohel Bais Ezra Children’s Home and Family Services Center, urged off-duty officers to bring guns when they attend religious services, and said they would be an “extension” to the on-duty officers that already protect many houses of worship.

The accused gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, was confronted by on-duty officers in tactical gear and armed with rifles as he tried to leave the synagogue after killing 11 people. He exchanged gunfire with the officers and injured four of them.

On Saturday after the shooting, the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism chief, James Waters, said on Twitter that counterterrorism teams had been sent to many houses of worship “out of an abundance of caution.”

The shootings prompted an outpouring of grief. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democrat of New York, ordered flags in the state lowered to half-staff. An evening interfaith vigil at Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side attracted a line that snaked for several blocks.

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City Admits: We Still Don't Know Where All the Cooling Towers Are

By Sean Carlson

The City Council passed landmark legislation in 2015 in the wake of the deadliest outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease in New York history requiring that every cooling tower be found, registered and inspected regularly.

Three years later, the city still isn't sure if it's found all of them.

Cooling towers are a piece of rooftop air conditioning equipment. On Tuesday, after a WNYC/Gothamist report found widespread noncompliance among the owners of the city's 6,000 registered cooling towers, health department officials testified at a City Council hearing that was debating new legislation on the towers. So, they were asked, about how many cooling towers aren't registered?

"There are certainly some," a health department spokesman told the committee. They would not say just how many, but added that the city is "closing in" on finding all of them.

Health committee chair Councilman Mark Levine — whose district in Upper Manhattan has seen two clusters of Legionnaires' Disease this year alone — pushed back.

"In both clusters in my district you identified unregistered towers just in that little neighborhood, so there must be many around the city," he said. While he praised the city's law to regulate cooling towers, he said the ones left unregistered are a problem.

"If the owner just ignores the whole thing and doesn't even report the existence of the tower to the city, then they could be doing nothing there," he said.

The health department says it uses a variety of tactics to locate unregistered cooling towers, which included using experts to "look around" when out in the city. It also has used satellite imagery to locate cooling towers on the roofs of buildings.

The proposed legislation would increase the frequency that cooling tower owners must report inspection results to the city, and notify owners about important dates. Officials say an online portal will go live next year to assist building owners and the public.

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Councilman Introduces Bill To Rein In Shadows On Parkland

By Brendan Krisel

NEW YORK, NY — Developments rise to new heights every day in New York City, casting new shadows over the precious few green spaces that provide despite to weary urban dwellers. A new bill in the city council is seeking to reign in the darkness.

City Councilman Mark Levine — who represents parts of the Upper West Side, Harlem and Washington Heights — introduced legislation that would create an inter-agency task force to study any new development that will cast shadows over city parkland. Levine, the former chair of the council's committee on parks and recreation, noted that six new developments taller than 1,000 feet have risen on 57th Street in Midtown alone in the past few years, casting new shadows over Central Par.

"Parks and green spaces are essential pieces of our City's infrastructure and parks need sunlight to thrive," Levine said in a statement. "We want to tackle this problem before the next boom on super-tall towers attacks Central Park. They cast shadows that can be a mile or longer in the park. If it was just one, you would wait for it to pass, but there are potentially seven more and that's going to affect the ecosystem of Central Park alone."

It's not just Central Park that's contending with shadows. Parks as small as Midtown's Greenacre Park — which occupies a single lot on on East 51st street between Second and Third avenues — are fighting for light as new towers rise around it. Greenacre Park was fortunate to receive a designation on the National Register of Historic Places this year and officials have pledged to preserve the park.

But not all parks will get the same protection.

"Currently, there is no process in the zoning resolution to assess, let alone mitigate, the impact of buildings on parks and open space," Layla Law-Gisiko, Chair of the Central Park Sunshine Task Force of Manhattan Community Board Five, said in a statement. "As a result, we have seen numerous parks throughout the city plunged into shadows with no ability to protect the public's access to sunlight."

A task force to study shadows is urgently needed now that developers have a wide range of tools for expanding on as-of-right zoning including transferable development rights, zoning lot mergers, mechanical space loopholes and new building technologies, Levine said. Projects applying for discretionary approvals or permits from or receiving city funds must conduct shadow assessments, but private as-of-right construction does not need to, Levine said.

"With the number of out-of-proportion developments increasing throughout the city, it's well past time New York takes action to protect our parks," Levine said in a statement.

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Town Hall Addresses West Siders’ Commuting Nightmares

By Michael McDowell

Bus-riders, bike-riders, straphangers, pedestrians and drivers all seem to agree on one thing: it’s no picnic getting around the city these days. Those struggles took center stage at a packed transportation town hall hosted by Councilman Mark Levine at the Manhattan School of Music in Morningside Heights on Monday night.

New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, MTA Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer, and State Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents much of Upper Manhattan, were joined on stage by transit advocates Stephanie Burgos-Veras of the Riders Alliance; Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter; and Erwin Figueroa of Transportation Alternatives.

The discussion ranged from the airing of individual grievances to wide-ranging ideas about how officials should best use New York’s scarce streets and parking spaces as the city nears nine million residents.

“We’re in the midst of a crisis, folks, a transportation crisis [and] a congestion crisis,” Levine began, and sketched several proposals he argues will support mass transit and alleviate traffic.

“I am a huge proponent of congestion pricing,” Levine said, to applause. “It would generate about a billion dollars a year to shore up our mass transit, it would be a long-term stable source of revenue, and it would reduce congestion.”

Levine also recently introduced a bill that would create residential parking permits in Northern Manhattan (covering all of the borough north of 60th Street), and is a supporter of shared mobility programs like CitiBike, as well as the city’s pilot carshare program with Zipcar and Enterprise.

Another ambitious idea? Extending ferry service up the Hudson.

“We need ferry service. We’re 8 minutes from Edgewater, we have potential ferry landings up and down the Hudson River, from Dyckman Street, Riverdale, other places, and I see ferry service as a way to further reduce congestion on our streets, so that people who right now are taking their cars across the George Washington Bridge would have a green alternative.”

Commissioner Trottenberg also answered a range of questions, saying that the city is aware of the abuse of city-issued parking placards, and is looking at the introduction of residential parking permits—be careful what you wish for—the recent citywide cordoning off of bus shelters, and the addition of dedicated bus lanes to city streets.

Bus advocates in particular made their presence felt. Burgos-Veras of Riders Alliance called bus service “the ignored transit crisis in New York City,” and described a novel technology solution her organization is supporting that is meant to improve bus commute time by safely moving buses through intersections.

“What we have been calling for, on the city side, are enforced bus lanes and Transit Signal Priority [TSP], a technology in streetlights that can communicate with a bus, so as a bus approaches a light turning red, the bus can communicate with the light, which will then hold the light green so that the bus can cross.”

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Bill aims to curb supertall shadows in NYC parks

By Amy Plitt

A new bill introduced in the City Council this week calls for establishing a task force to review any properties that have the potential to cast shadows across city parks.

City Council member Mark Levine, whose district includes neighborhoods in northern Manhattan, first introduced the idea back in 2015, when many of the supertalls that have come to dominate the southern end of Central Park were little more than holes in the ground. But now, with four of those cloud-piercing buildings nearing completion (and one—220 Central Park South—that just misses supertall status by about 30 feet), the council member felt it was the right time to make protecting parks from shadows a priority.

“[In 2015] these buildings weren’t up,” Levine tells Curbed. “Now, everyone can look up in the sky and see exactly the impact on Central Park that we had feared. … The threat is no longer hypothetical.”

The towers along Central Park South do cast long shadows that reach well into the park, although according to a New York Times study from 2016, their relative skinniness means that the darkness will “pass through the park at an incredibly fast pace, like a minute hand on a clock.” But while Central Park is what initially spurred Levine to act, he sees this as a preventative measure.

“It’s really aimed at forcing a conversation about solutions, and at ensuring the city monitors this issue in a way they haven’t before,” Levine says. “There’s just no accounting for parks and sunlight in any aspect of our zoning or construction approval process.” (Indeed, searching the zoning code text brings up scant references to sunlight or shadows, and only in reference to pedestrian plazas.)

Levine’s bill calls for establishing a task force, comprising officials across various city agencies (including the Department of Buildings and HPD), that would “study the effect of shadows cast on parks under the jurisdiction 5 of the department by new or proposed building construction,” per the legislation language. There are no specifics included on how tall or big a development would need to be to qualify; instead, the bill calls for the task force to study projects that have the potential to cast shadows, and issue recommendations to the mayor (which could include proposed changes to developments).

The Municipal Art Society, which has followed what it calls the “accidental skyline” issue for several years, issued a statement to Curbed in support of the legislation. “Protecting light and air is a matter of public health and has been a planning priority since the earliest days of the skyscraper—New York’s original 1916 Zoning Resolution was largely predicated on addressing precisely this concern,” Elizabeth Goldstein, MAS’s president, said. “As New York becomes denser than ever, developing a formal understanding of the impact of shadows on our public spaces is an obvious and necessary next step. We urge Council Members to pass this bill.”

In 2015, the Real Estate Board of New York called the shadow fears “overblown,” noting that the Central Park Conservancy had not raised concerns about the proliferation of skyscrapers. At the time, the city declined to get involved in curtailing as-of-right development (we’ve reached out to City Hall regarding Levine’s current proposal, and will update with a response).

“I’m not anti-development,” Levine says. “I think the city needs to continue to build and grow. But development should take into account things like preservation of sunlight in our parks.”

Read the full story here.

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Council bill takes aim at shade cast by tall buildings

By Joe Anuta

Levine proposes task force to limit development near green spaces.

An Upper Manhattan lawmaker who wants to regulate development near parks introduced a bill Wednesday to create an interagency task force to study the effect of shade on the city's green spaces.

The issue has become controversial—especially regarding the spate of towers topping 1,000 feet along West 57th Street that cast long shadows on Central Park—and it has become the raison d'être for the Municipal Art Society and other groups.

"Other cities—including Boston, Fort Lauderdale and San Francisco—have already enacted zoning ordinances that afford a measure of protection for green space," Councilman Mark Levine said. "One common measure is to apply a 'shadow budget' to development around parks, to shape development in ways that minimize shadow impact."

It's unclear whether the de Blasio administration would support the idea.

The City Council typically focuses its efforts on trimming the scope of development, but the administration has been trying to expand the supply of apartments by financing new affordable housing projects, supporting dense developments near transit hubs and rezoning neighborhoods to entice the private sector to build both market-rate and regulated units.

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