A Large Community Garden in West Harlem is Seriously Damaged — and Residents Blame Amtrak

By Philip Klint

Jenny Benítez is beside herself that the community garden she has lovingly tended for more than 40 years is now seriously damaged.

"The peach trees are gone, the pear trees are gone, the plum trees are gone," she said. "Everything is gone."

It's one of the city's largest community gardens, created by Benitez and other residents in the 1970s as part of an effort to reclaim Riverside Park in West Harlem from years of neglect. The Parks Department even gave her a lifetime achievement award for her efforts, and two trees in the garden now honor her late sons.

But two weekends ago, Benítez - who lives across from the park at Riverside Drive and 138th St. - noticed the normally green plants were turning brown.

"I was here by myself and I was looking and I cried," she said.

The garden is located next to train tracks maintained by Amtrak. Weed killer was sprayed along the line, and the poison apparently drifted into the garden.

"You can't consume nothing in here," Benítez said. "It's very hard to explain to your volunteers that their produce are not healthy."

According to an email that Benítez's family received, Amtrak acknowledged that a contractor sprayed weed killer on Sept. 15, but the agency said it didn't know exactly what chemicals it used.

"Amtrak has been in contact with Mrs. Benitez and is currently investigating this claim," Amtrak told NY1 in a statement.

Produce grown in the garden normally is donated to local residents and a soup kitchen. But about half of the garden is dead or dying - and there's concern the surviving vegetables might be contaminated.

The local city councilman, Mark Levine, fired off a letter to Amtrak, requesting that the railroad make things right.

"This is one of our most precious community gardens," Levine said. "We are demanding Amtrak come out here, inspect the damage, give us answers to what they sprayed, and compensate this garden for the harm that has been done."

Despite the damage, Benítez is optimistic her garden will eventually bloom once again.

"I know my volunteers are going to be here and they're going to put all their energy to make it better," she said.

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Medallion-winning idea: Council drives at a solution to aid overloaded taxi owners

By Daily News Editorial Board

All hail the City Council for proffering a lifeline to yellow cab drivers whose debts tied to their medallions are putting them on the road to ruin.

We get how creative destruction works in this economy; we work for a newspaper. We know Uber and Lyft outflanked taxicabs for street-hail business, cratering yellow-cab medallion values.

Nor do we weep for many medallion-owners, millionaires who have suddenly lost money on an investment that used to be better than gold.

But there is something we can do for hardworking owner-operators who now find themselves sucked into a vortex they can't control. And it's not Mayor de Blasio's wishful suggestion to just wait for the recent cap on app-hail vehicles to inject value back into medallions.

In June, this Editorial Board first proposed a bailout fund to help individual taxi owners cut their medallion loans down to size. Councilman Mark Levine responded to our waving arm; he's written a bill to have a task force study the best path.

Don't pile yet another fee onto Uber rides, atop a congestion fee the state recently imposed. Instead, slice off a share of those proceeds.

Cabbies are doing their best. Help them hack it.

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Harlem's Amsterdam Avenue In Urgent Need Of Redesign: Advocates

By Brendan Krisel

HARLEM, NY — With nearly one crash per day on a stretch of Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, "time is of the essence" for the city Department of Transportation to implement a street redesign, City Councilman Mark Levine said during a Thursday rally with advocates for safe streets.

"What you're looking at here on Amsterdam Avenue is a street designed according to state-of-the-art principals from half a century ago. It's a street that is desparately need in modernization and we have learned a lot in the past half century about how to make our city streets safer and more efficient for everybody," Levine said.

Levine rallied at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 123rd street Thursday with representatives from Families for Safe Streets, Transportation Alternatives and Community Board 9 to urge the city to implement fixes on the Avenue between West 110th and 155th Streets.

The city Department of Transportation has been pitching a plan to redesign the stretch since the beginning of 2017 that will add painted bike lanes, left turn bays and pedestrian safety islands to the 45-block street stretch. The redesign will also reduce the number of travel lanes from four to two on the two-way avenue and add loading zones to help businesses receive deliveries, according to the DOT's latest presentation of the plan.

Making the avenue narrower and adding turning bays will discourage speeding and create simpler and safer left turns for cars, according to the DOT.

More than 750 people have been injured and three people have been killed in automobile collisions since 2012 on this stretch of Amsterdam Avenue, Levine said Thursday.

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Expanded Right to Counsel bill introduced, Presentado el proyecto de ley ampliado

By Postmaster

Stronger stuff is needed.

Councilmembers who have introduced new legislation designed to strengthen the city’s “Right to Counsel” law, passed last year that provided legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court, argue that the original law needs to be strengthened.

Intro 214-B, passed in August 2017, mandated the New York City Office of Civil Justice to provide renters with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – or $50,200 annually for a family of four – with free legal representation when facing an eviction.

On September 12, City Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, the lead sponsors of Intro 214-B, unveiled additional legislation to expand the law.

The new bill would increase the program’s income threshold to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, expand Right to Counsel outside of housing court, and connect tenants to attorneys before they arrive at court.

“The passage of our Right to Counsel law last year was a historic step towards justice in NYC’s housing courts, where for generations the vast majority of tenants faced the threat of eviction without the benefit of legal representation,” said Levine. “The stakes for implementation couldn’t be higher, which is why we need to expand and strengthen this law to keep New Yorkers in their homes, off the streets, and out of the shelter system.”

At a City Hall press conference, Levine pointed out that while the majority of tenants in housing court are eligible for the right to counsel under the current 200 percent threshold, a single New Yorker earning a $15 an hour minimum wage is not.

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Credit Union Holding Taxi Medallion Loans Shutters, Leaving Drivers in Limbo

By Felipe De La Hoz

For years, taxi drivers in New York City, many of them immigrants, have taken out loans against their taxi medallions, the treasured city documents that allow drivers to legally operate a taxicab. A taxi medallion was viewed as safe and secure collateral for those loans.

Since 2013, however, and the arrival of app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, the value of those medallions has plummeted and along with it the fate of the biggest holder of medallion loans, Queens-based Melrose Credit Union. Paired with a history of mismanagement, the downturn shoved Melrose to the brink of collapse, and in February of last year, it was officially placed into NCUA stewardship, the federal agency that oversees credit unions.

In a little-noticed statement last month, the NCUA announced that it had “made the decision to liquidate Melrose and discontinue its operations after determining the credit union was insolvent and had no prospect for restoring viable operations.” Many of Melrose’s assets and liabilities were transferred to the Teachers Federal Credit Union (TFCU). But an NCUA spokesman John Fairbanks confirmed that the medallion loans had not. Instead, they have remained with the federal government for servicing and collection.

That has left the future of perhaps as much as $833 million in loans in doubt as well as that of the often desperate drivers who borrowed against their medallions. 

“The NCUA’s Asset Management and Assistance Center is managing the portfolio of taxi-medallion-secured loans, which includes servicing,” Fairbanks wrote in an email to Documented. He said that Melrose members had been notified about the liquidation, but declined to discuss whether the terms of any loans had changed, saying the information was confidential.

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Drivers waiting for financial help hear new Council reforms

By Dan Rivoli

Anxious and struggling drivers waiting for relief from the city heard lawmakers on Monday discuss a package of bills that aim to help them financially, emotionally and physically.

The bills follow a successful effort to cap the number of app-based cars that had flooded the market, driving down wages and yellow taxi medallion values.

“We have an interest in making sure that there’s an economic model that works so drivers and owners are out on the street providing service,” Taxi and Limousine Commission Chair Meera Joshi said.

Industrywide, lawmakers want the TLC to educate drivers who want to enter the business and set up driver assistance centers that can offer mental health services. The Council would also prevent drivers from losing money when credit cards fail or get rejected.

The TLC would look at ways to set up a health and benefits system.

For Uber and app-drivers, the TLC could cap how much they would pay on lease or rental agreements, and stop app companies from deducting those payments right out of their fares.

For yellow cabs, the bills would make the TLC study ways to raise medallion values and potentially bail out medallion owners under water.

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Sales Drop At Trump-Branded City Concessions, Report Says

By Brendan Krisel

NEW YORK, NY — New York City has no love for President Donald Trump. New Yorkers showed their disdain for Trump in 2016 when more than two million residents voted against him in the presidential election, and new reports suggest that New Yorkers are staying away from anything connected to Trump.

Profits and visits at Trump-branded city concessions have dropped or flatlined since the president's campaign for the presidency in 2016, the New York Times first reported. The Trump Organization, Trump's real estate business, has four contracts with the city to operate Wollman and Lasker rinks in Central Park, the Central Park Carousel and the Ferry Point Landing golf course in the Bronx.

Revenues at the Wollman Rink and Lasker Rink in Central Park have plummeted as much as five percent in the years following Trump's election, the Times reported. The Central Park Carousel logged a profit of a little more than $30,000 in 2017 compared to $188,000 in 2015, according to the report.

The numbers don't lie, and the anecdotal evidence may be worse. Tour guides told the Times that visitors have even come to blows over their views on Trump, and now have to warn groups before visiting Trump-linked concessions.

The Trump Organization denied to the Times that the drop in profits is tied to politics.

"There is no connection to politics and usership at our facilities here in NYC," Ronald C. Lieberman, a Trump Organization executive, told the Times.

The drop in profits at Trump-branded concession may embolden a push for the city to sever ties with the president's company. City Councilman Mark Levine has argued that the city has legal precedent to terminate its contracts with the Trump Organization following Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen's recent guilty plea to eight felony counts stemming from hush money payments.

Levine — who represents parts of the Upper West Side, Harlem and Washington Heights — said that Cohen's plea deal represents "evidence that the Trump Organization has been deeply entangled in a criminal conspiracy."

In 2011, the Parks Department terminated the contract of a company called East Coast Golf, Inc. — which operated a golf course in Marine Park, Brooklyn — due to links to organized crime, Levine said. Levine, a former chair of the council's parks and recreation committee, called on the city to terminated Trump's contracts in 2015 due to the President's vitriolic rhetoric on the campaign trail, but there was no legal precedent to do so.


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Tennants' Right to Counsel May Be Expanded With Levine's Legislationn

By Sarina Trangle

Councilman Mark Levine plans to introduce legislation Wednesday that would expand the scope of the nascent Right to Counsel measure, which is getting underway in housing court.

Last August, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the Right to Counsel, which gives the government five years to begin providing free, legal representation to anyone facing an eviction in housing court and earning no more than twice the federal poverty level; those who earn more are entitled to a legal consultation.

About a year into the Right to Counsel’s implementation, Levine said several updates are needed to ensure the measure is truly universal.

“We’re really excited to be introducing a 2.0 legislation that we think will further expand and strengthen what has already been game-changing legislation,” said Levine, who co-sponsored the original Right to Counsel measure with City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson. “It’s pretty clear that people who are unquestionably struggling economically today aren’t eligible for representation because of how low the cut-off is.”

The new legislation would increase the income cap from two to four times the federal poverty level, which would ensure that a person working 40 hours a week for $15 an hour — which minimum wage is slated to reach in 2019 — could access the service.

The bill would also add representation at several non-housing court venues, including during administrative hearings at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency — as well as for cases that are appealed and a portion that land in state Supreme Court.

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Councilman Wants to Evict Trump Organization from Central Park Attractions

By Carol Tannenhauser

Local City Council Member Mark Levine has been determined to get The Trump Organization out of Central Park ever since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign on July 16, 2015, with a speech saying Mexico was sending “rapists” to the U.S.

“Mr. Trump’s racist comments are despicable even by his already low standards,” said Levine, who has a substantial Hispanic constituency, at the time. “Our parks are public spaces where everyone should feel welcome and an association with Mr. Trump directly contradicts this spirit.”

Back then, Levine, then chairman of the Council’s parks committee, was stymied in his attempt to break the city’s contracts with The Trump Organization to run three cherished Central Park concessions — the Carousel and Wollman and Lasker Rinks — by the First Amendment.

“They can’t do it,” prominent civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel weighed in. “There’s a thing called the First Amendment, and the city of New York can’t cancel a binding contract because they don’t like the political views of Donald Trump.”

But they can cancel one if The Trump Organization is found to be involved in criminal activities — as it was by Michael Cohen’s recent plea deal, Levine says.

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Shuttered UWS Subway Station To Reopen Labor Day Weekend: MTA

By Brendan Krisel

UPPER WEST SIDE, NY — A subway stop on the border of the Upper West Side and Harlem that has been closed since April for renovations will reopen on Labor Day weekend, transit officials announced.

The West 110th Street B/C station will feature new railings, digital signs, information dashboards, way-finding signs and a turnstile area with brighter lighting, MTA officials said. The MTA also completed structural fixes to the station's steel and concrete structure, mezzanine, walls, stairs and platforms.

The five-month renovation was part of the MTA's Enhanced Stations Initiative.

"We're thrilled to be returning this station to the community in better condition than it's been in for decades, with critical structural repairs performed and brand new features that will make planning and taking trips with us easier and more convenient than ever," NYC Transit President Andy Byford said in a statement.

Despite the new features — which include an extension of Chris Wynter's glass mosaic artwork "Migration," — the new station was not upgraded in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lack of a new accessible entrance to the station prompted elected officials and accessibility advocates to call the renovation a "blown opportunity" when the station closed in April.

The three other B/C line stations to be shut down for the Enhanced Stations Initiative — located at West 163rd Street, West 86th Street and West 72nd Streets — will also remain inaccessible to riders in wheelchairs. Currently, not one station on the B/C line between Columbus Circle and West 125th Street is accessible to people in wheelchairs.

"This kind of renovation is done once a generation if you're lucky," City Councilman Mark Levine said in April. "And we're blowing this opportunity to do it right."

The West 110th Street Station services 7,500 customers per day from the nearby Upper West Side and Harlem neighborhoods, transit officials said.

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