Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer on ‘Fearless Girl,’ the Port Authority and the fate of the garment district

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Gale Brewer has had some 10,000 interns and raised 35 foster children, but now her main job is serving as advocate and cheerleader for the 1.64 million residents of New York County (and the countless others who work and visit) as Manhattan borough president. Brewer spoke with City & State’s Jeff Coltin about parades, property taxes and zippers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

C&S: The “Fearless Girl” statute is here to stay! Do you buy into the criticism that it’s corporate or so-called “false feminism?”

GB: I think that she has great appeal. She is inspirational. I’ve been there quite a few times recently and I met the artist. It’s an example of art doing what reports and speeches and press conferences cannot. So I think she’s great. I love the bull too. It’s a really nice combination for our city and for young women. You should know, of course, that I was the one who suggested to the mayor that the (U.S. women’s national soccer team), when they won the World Cup, march up (Broadway) for a ticker tape parade and I’ve never seen so many young women. Oh my goodness. So there’s something about this young girl that reminds me of the young women who were there that day. There’s a reason why it has clicked with so many people. So I hope she stays. She really is a lot of fun in a challenging world.

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C&S: You’re not a fan of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to relocate garment district jobs to Brooklyn. Why is it bad for Manhattan?

GB: We’ve been supporting the two-hub strategy. We’re not upset with Brooklyn, but you’ve got to have a plan! What we understand is that money goes to those who want to move to Brooklyn. That’s not a plan for Manhattan. Transportation to Brooklyn is challenging. The women in the garment district are women in their 40s and 50s or older. It takes 10 years to be a master sewer. It’s a long hike from the subway to the Bush Terminal or wherever the end zone is for doing the manufacturing.

It’s a situation where maybe a few people like the strategy of just going to Brooklyn, but there are many local stakeholders who say moving won’t work for them, even if they’ve got the money. It’s this ecosystem! You literally have to walk to get – not just a button down the street. You have to go from – OK, this manufacturer does a great job with this sample, but I really need to go to this other factory to get the sample improved. And then the theater district! Don’t forget about them. They’re now weighing in, people who make the costumes. They have to go get a button, the zipper broke, they don’t like the dress, it has a rip in it – they’ve got to run over. It’s a fascinating ecosystem that cannot be destroyed.

C&S: There are a lot of plans out to improve the Port Authority Bus Terminal, with some even proposing moving most of it to New Jersey. What does Manhattan need out of the bus terminal?

GB: The bus terminal is needed in Manhattan. I think we’ve had good success with the Port Authority in the sense that, because of our intervention – the first description for a new bus terminal by the Port Authority – I swear they were going to tear down 100 or so buildings in Hell’s Kitchen. They were the oldest markets, the oldest buildings, landmarked church, etc. That did not fly. Since then, we’ve had so many press conferences, meetings with the Port Authority, meetings with the people in New Jersey. I don’t know how much, if anything should be in New Jersey, how much should be in Manhattan, but it has to be something that works for both. We understand that. We definitely need a new bus station. But my understanding is it’s actually cheaper to build the No. 7 subway under the river than to redo the bus station. I’m just saying. So all of this needs to be looked at.

C&S: We’ve been talking about the Midtown East rezoning for years and I know it’s been a slow process. Is that finally coming to fruition? Are there going to be new buildings going up around there soon?

GB: I think Midtown East is going in the right direction. The good news is a lot of stakeholders, post-Bloomberg, thanks to (City Councilman) Dan Garodnick and the City Planning Commission – obviously we had lot of meetings and people really weighed in. So I think there will be new buildings, but more importantly there will be new infrastructure. Subways, landmarks will get some funding out of this. And we hope for public realm, which really means public space, where you can have lunch and sit and relax and so on and so forth. All of that (funding style) is a really interesting new structure.

Also One Vanderbilt, which was not specifically part of this rezoning, but it was part of a ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure). The property taxes for the buildings before they were torn down were $8 million. And when One Vanderbilt is completed, it’ll be $50 million in property taxes. So you can see this area, because it doesn’t have a tax abatement, as does Hudson Yards, as does World Trade Center. So it’s an interesting need for good design (and) new buildings because of the property taxes.

C&S: You used to be a City Council member. Now there’s a new 21 in ’21 movement to get 21 female City Council members by 2021. Is that number realistic? Will you campaign for female city council candidates even outside of Manhattan?

GB: I don’t campaign too much outside of Manhattan. I’m pretty much a Manhattan person. I think people outside of Manhattan should decide for themselves, but I’m definitely for more women in the City Council. I’m always surprised at how few there are now. I think it’s 13? So yes, we need more women on the City Council. Absolutely.