July 20, By Jason Cohen
The business climate on Steinway Street, the treatment of food cart vendors and the security afforded to residents of the Astoria Houses were some of the many items discussed when Mayor Bill de Blasio held a town hall in Astoria last night.
The town hall took place inside a packed auditorium at P.S. 70, located at 30-44-43rd St., and was part of his ongoing series of town halls taking place across Queens. The mayor held a town hall in Rego Park last month, one in Long Island City in April and another in Corona in March.
One issue on several people’s minds was Steinway Street and the need for it to be revitalized.
The street, which was once a flourishing retail area, now has many vacancies and is no longer the attractive destination it once was, residents said.
De Blasio was asked how he could bring it back to life.
The mayor said that he is backing a plan to redesign Steinway Street, where it would become more pedestrian friendly as well as green. He said through streetscaping, Steinway Street would be safer for pedestrians and would promote commerce.
Council Member Costa Constantinides, who proposed this redesign months ago, lauded de Blasio for his support.
“Shoppers should be able to more easily and safely cross the street to travel between businesses,” Constantinides said. “We look forward to working with the DOT and community stakeholders on this redesign.”
One business owner told the mayor that retailers on Steinway are finding it tough to survive because of high costs such as property taxes. He said that property taxes just keep going up and up.
“Property taxes are higher than rents used to be just a dozen years ago,” the business owner said.
De Blasio said he understood the plight of small business owners but it is not easy lowering property taxes.
The mayor said that amount levied for property taxes is determined, in part, by the amount of funds the city gets from Washington.
He claimed that if President Trump eliminates the Affordable Care Act, leaving millions of people uninsured, the city would have to find funds to cover lost revenue, making it difficult to cut property taxes.
“Going forward, we are trying to do whatever we can to reduce pressure on small businesses,” the mayor said.
One resident, who has been a food cart vendor for nearly a decade, said he gets inspected nearly 10 times as much as brick-and-mortar restaurants. He asked the mayor what is being done to ease enforcement and increase the number of permits.
Street vendors have been calling on the mayor to lift the cap on the number of permits issued which is currently at 3,100. Many pay lofty fees for black market permits or operate illegally.
The mayor explained that this is a complex issue and that change is needed.
“We want legal vendors,” the mayor said. “We want the maximum opportunity for people to become legal. We want to stop what is an underground economy for the permits. These are all the factors we’re trying to sort out.”
The city needs to work on setting a new number for how many permits should be issued, he said. Then it needs to be maintained.
“The goal is to come out of this with a rational system,” de Blasio said. “Right now we don’t have a rational system. Right now a lot of the enforcement comes down to if food carts are in the right place and if the vendor can legally sell.”
Some questions last night dealt with public housing and the safety of tenants.
A few residents of Astoria Houses expressed how they do not feel safe living there.
One woman told the mayor the doors don’t lock and the buildings need more cameras.
De Blasio shared her sentiments and stressed how more needs to be done to ensure people are not afraid at home.
“People need to feel safe in their own community and we have work to do to get to that point,” he said.
In the most recent budget, Constantinides allocated $1 million toward TV cameras in the stairwells at Astoria Houses and extra lighting in the parking lot.
The event was co-hosted by Constantinides, Borough President Melinda Katz, State Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and District Council 22.