12:50 pm Jan. 11, 2012
Movie producer Jane Rosenthal was dressed in all black, with a string of pearls drooping off her neck, as she stood in the middle of a Soho loft overlooking Prince Street. Behind her was a stone fireplace taller than her or any of the approximately 300 well-dressed guests there that night. Above her was a chandelier shaped like a flying woman with antlers for wings. The loft belonged to Henry Buhl, a photographer, philanthropist and former investment banker.
Rosenthal put on a pair of thick, round black glasses and began reading aloud what was essentially a catalogue of the accomplishments of Julie Menin, the head of Community Board 1 in lower Manhattan and mother of three who recently announced plans to become a candidate for Manhattan borough president.
"If more government leaders thought and worked like mothers, with common-sense logical approaches, our country would be in much better shape," Rosenthal said.
Menin is hoping to replace Scott Stringer, who is leaving the borough president's post to run for mayor next year. The rest of the field has yet to take shape, but other possible candidates include City Councilman Robert Jackson of Harlem and City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, from Manhattan's East Side.
Menin, 44, is former lawyer who lives in Tribeca with her real-estate-developer husband, Henry, and their children. In 2000, she opened a restaurant, Vine, in lower Manhattan. After Sept. 11, the business, like many in the area, struggled. Three weeks after the attacks, Menin launched a group called Wall Street Rising, to help small businesses and residents in the area. In 2005, she won a special election to become the chairperson of Community Board 1, and was re-elected in 2006, 2008 and 2010. (She announced she was stepping down as CB1 president in 2009, but changed her mind and won re-election.)
At the fund-raiser, Menin, dressed in a brown suit-jacket and skirt, spent a few minutes acknowledging lawmakers and labor leaders in attendance. Alan Patricof, a major Democratic fund-raiser, was sitting on a folding chair poking his head around a column blocking his view. Former public advocate Mark Green and Teamsters 237 president Greg Floyd hovered by a long wooden table set with trays of stuffed mushrooms, vegetables and cheese and crackers. Democratic operative Mark Benoit, who Menin has lined up to help her with her borough president campaign, stood next to the fireplace. Fund-raiser Marla Klinger, who will also be helping Menin, blended into the crowd.
Menin spoke slowly and steadily as described lower Manhattan's recent upswing.
"We now are the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in the city of New York," she said. "We've got over 30,000 new residents just in Community Board 1. We're one of the few areas of the city that's actually been experiencing job growth. We're the fourth-largest business district in the country and we're actually one of the most visited tourist destinations as well.
"And so I really want to take what we have done in lower Manhattan and take a lot of those results and a lot of those actions boroughwide."
Later, she said, "Should the position of Manhattan borough president be open, I am seriously exploring a run for that office."
Menin said that, if elected, her top issue would be education, which she spoke about as an urban planning issue as much as a pedagogical one.
"It is absolutely wrong that the department of ed is not doing enough for long-range planning for new schools," Menin said.
In the area represented by Community Board 1, she said, "We've built three new public schools in the last four years: only neighborhood in the city that's been able to do that."
(The schools issue would surely come up as a matter of debate during the campaign if both Menin and Jackson run; he is chair of the Council's education committee.)
While the job of borough president has lost much of its influence since the days of the city Board of Estimates, borough presidents do still retain a significant role in approving and shaping land-use and zoning decisions, a topic Menin was happy to focus on.
She said overcrowded schools and the lack of affordable housing in Manhattan is a direct result of the city not doing "comprehensive planning."
"Right now, when large-scale development is winding through the city land-use review process, sometimes, developers give back a school, sometimes they give back a park, sometimes it's affordable housing, sometimes it's nothing and sometimes a project isn't approved," she said. "In my opinion, there has to be a better way than that. There's no certainty and there are not clear standards."
After Menin spoke, she thanked everyone and walked into the crowd to shake hands and talk with people.
On my way outside of the building, I ran into actor Robert De Niro, who was on his way in. DeNiro and Rosenthal helped launch the Tribeca Film Festival, which, like Menin's Wall Street Rising, was created to help the area recover after the 9/11 attacks.
A doctor who attended Menin's fund-raiser, Mark Wilkenfeld, stopped DeNiro in the lobby of the building, and pleaded with him for a photo. DeNiro grudgingly obliged. Wilkenfeld handed his Blackberry to Greg Floyd, who duly took the picture. Then DeNiro went upstairs.
A campaign aide told me they raised $100,000 at last night's event.