De Blasio’s horse plan meets City Council jeers

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Jimmy Van Bramer. (William Alatriste for the New York City Council)
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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration doesn’t know how many carriage drivers will lose their jobs thanks to his plan to downsize the industry.

Nor, for that matter, do city officials know how much they plan to spend housing carriage horses in a city-owned building in Central Park. Nor do they know much those carriage operators will pay in rent.

"The administration did a piss poor job,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer on Friday, after administration officials offered little in the way of information during a City Council hearing.

The compromise constructed by de Blasio, some City Council members, and the Teamsters — who represent drivers — also calls for the eviction of pedicabs from the south end of Central Park.

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But city officials haven't involved pedicab drivers at all in their discussions. They don’t actually know how many pedicabs operate in the south end of the park. Nor do they know how many operate in the north end of the park — the only part of the park they will be able to operate in, per the terms of the compromise.

The transportation department “does not have at this moment a number of how many are operating in the park versus on the streets,” said Jeff Lynch, the transportation department’s assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs.

“Why all of a sudden put them into the mix, when I don’t think they were even involved in the discussion?” asked Councilmwoman Margaret Chin.

“There is a need to balance the uses within the park,” said Lynch.

The compromise stems from de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, when he promised to ban horse carriages from New York City, purportedly because he thinks they’re inhumane.

As it so happens, De Blasio’s campaign was energized by an influx of money from horse carriage opponents like Steve Nislick and Wendy Neu, who also played a role in damaging the prospects of a chief rival, former Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

De Blasio has had a hard time fulfilling that campaign promise. And for a while, it seemed like he might just let the whole idea die. But, to the consternation of some of his advisers, he won’t.

His efforts culminated in the plan that he and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced last Sunday evening, which would bar pedicabs from the south end of the park, and cut the number of horses from 220 to 75. It would relocate them from their stables on Manhattan’s far west side into Central Park, most likely into a building now occupied by the Parks Department near the 85th Street Transverse. 

Some reports have suggested that the city plans to invest as much as $25 million to renovate the building into stables, though city officials say there’s no real number yet. They also said the city has no intention of issuing a request for proposals, as is commonplace, but not universally required, when parcelling out city property to a concession. Nor do they know how much they will ask for in rent.

Councilman Carlos Menchaca said the city was effectively asking the City Council for a “blank check.”

Whatever the price, city officials argued, there is a public benefit to having the horses in the park.

“The public benefit is that an important, historic use in the park is allowed to continue,” said Alessandro Olivieri, the Parks Department’s general counsel.

“I just have to point out, that’s the exact same industry that you proposed to disband and eliminate altogether,” said Van Bramer, several minutes later. “That is an inherent contradiction.”

During the course of the hearing, councilmembers responded with incredulity to the city’s paucity of information.

“I think what you’re asking us to buy here is an empty bag with a hole in it,” said Councilman Barry Grodenchik.

When information was supplied, it was also treated with incredulity.

Animal rights advocates, pedicab drivers, and horse carriage drivers dressed in top hat and cape garb filled the City Council chambers.

When officials talked about the lack of documented horse death and accidents, the activists moaned and jeered in discontent. When members challenged the city on its desire to partially ban pedicabs, their drivers cheered and applauded. When members said that horses are already well taken care of, the drivers waved their hands in the air in a sign of approval.

Officials said the city has received 15 reports of incidents involving horse carriages in the last five years, including ten collisions with vehicles and four horse injuries.

“Fifteen is too many, but in the city we live in, it’s not an epidemic,” said Councilman Liz Crowley.

The city is aware of one allegation of animal cruelty in the industry over the last year. It's unware of any horse deaths attributable to a vehicular accident in the recent past, though some horses have died on the job “from a variety of causes," according to one official.

“But horses, like people, will die,” said Councilman Rory Lancman. “Can you attribute their deaths to their working as carriage horses?”

Mindy Tarlow, the mayor's director of operations, said she wasn't sure Lancman was using the right "litmus test."

The city also declined to estimate how many jobs would be lost thanks to its actions.

“I don’t think that number is knowable,” said one official.

But workers who lose their jobs will be able to “take advantage of the city’s displaced worker opportunities,” said Tarlow.

“This open-endedness disturbs me,” said Councilman Daneek Miller.

After the administration testified, it was the Teamsters' turn. They didn’t seem too thrilled with the deal they had purportedly signed onto either.

Union president Demos Dimopoulos repeatedly declined to answer questions from council members in detail, arguing that he did not wish to “negotiate in public.”

“What we have here today is what we call a classic shotgun wedding — that's what it is,” said Councilman David Greenfield. “You and your industry is at the barrel of a shotgun and you are forced to come to the altar and as a result of that, you are in fact getting married to other folks from different perspectives and no particular party is happy."

Asked whether he was satisfied with the deal the de Blasio administration is offering, Demopoulos said, “No.”