Let’s talk about a truck depot. No, I haven’t lost my marbles and am now raving about random city lots. This particular depot is significant for the simple reason that it didn’t have to be a truck depot, and in fact could have been over 900 units of new housing, including at least 90 set aside for very low income tenants, were it not for the opposition of one person: Harlem Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan.
Affordable housing pulled for truck depot
Much hay has already been made about this, but to summarize, developer Bruce Teitelbaum proposed rezoning a stretch of 145th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Lenox Boulevards for a development known as One45 (yes, real estate monikers always have to be eyeroll-worthy). The initial plans would have created over 800 units of housing, of which Teitelbaum pledged about 30%would be set aside for below-market rents. At that point, Jordan and Manhattan borough president Mark Levine, in tandem, rejected the proposal, asking for 50% affordability. Teitelbaum yielded and promised the 50% along with more units overall.
That would have been that, if Jordan hadn’t then come back with a demand for 100% income-restricted units, a concession that would be unprecedented. After some more back and forth, Teitelbaum pulled the project, instead using the lot as a truck depot, which opened earlier this year. In the face of heated criticism over that and several other dubious positions, as well as revelations that she missed about half of her Council votes and multiple committee meetings, Jordan announced this week that she was not running for reelection, leaving the race open to three strong challengers that had already emerged. The Council’s rezoning meant that many members, including Jordan, were serving shortened two-year terms, meaning she will be one of the shortest-serving Council members in city history.
Let me be clear about something here: I am probably much closer politically to Jordan than to most of her detractors, in the sense that I fundamentally agree with her positions pushing for more affordable housing, reevaluations of the role of the police in public life, and other planks. Fellow Councilmember Charles Barron told City & State recently that Jordan was mainly dropping out as a result of incoming fire from the media and a related collapse in institutional support, and when she recently told a Daily News reporter “your whole profession is pretty awful,” she probably had people like me in mind.
Political pragmatism has gone too far
As a member of the Daily News editorial board, we’ve hit her a few times for the One45 fiasco, and she’d probably make the argument that the opposition is fundamentally political and maybe even personal, but it’s not. What it boils down to is this: political pragmatism can and has been taken too far, to the point of bipartisanship and consensus almost being fetishized by the media as the paragon of political achievement. Yet ideology isn’t everything, and ideological purity, like a too-high concentration of an otherwise beneficial vitamin, can be poisonous and actually counterintuitive to the actual goals of an ideological position.
I lead with the One45 situation because it really is the perfect example. Obviously councilmembers should reject a developer’s first salvo on affordable housing. You never say yes to the first offer in a negotiation, and the actual, concrete power that members of the City Council have as opposed to, say, community activists means that they have the ability to extract real, significant concessions from developers with the threat of an actionable vote behind them. Councilmembers do it all the time; Queens’ Julie Won successfully secured not only more affordable housing but also public goods like an elementary school and a tenant legal defense fund as part of the wrangling over the $2 billion Innovation QNS project.
So what did we get here from Jordan’s recalcitrance? Nothing. Zero units of affordable housing, zero community benefits, just a big, dangerous, smelly big-rig truck depot. What was the point? What overarching vision was advanced here? Perhaps it seems harsh to single Jordan out like this, and I don’t mean to imply that she’s the only offender, but it’s telling that she seems a bit bewildered by the fact that, in electing her, her constituents’ expectations weren’t just that she would remain true to her political vision — though that’s certainly important — but that she would be effective.
It’s one thing to struggle against the grain as an unabashed progressive in the GOP-controlled U.S. House, but to miss half your votes and de facto pick a truck depot over a housing development in the progressive-dominated New York City Council is not a sign of bravely holding your ground against the political headwinds. It’s a sign that you didn’t try.
Whys and hows of civic participation
So here’s what I’ll posit: this newsletter is not and never has been about telling you who to vote for, and my exasperation with Jordan isn’t an endorsement against her because, well, she’s not running anyway. What this newsletter has really been about is helping you mull why you should vote and how you should think through your voting and civic participation writ large. What’s actually going on beyond the pure headlines? What should you consider from abstract and practical perspectives? In that vein, I’ll propose that instead of judging your elected officials purely along either the track of their closeness to your ideological positions, or their efficiency at passing bills and whipping votes, you think of it kind of like a matrix, where each of those things gets a certain weight depending on how important they are to you.
You probably already do this to some extent intuitively, but I would urge you to really think through these things. What weight do you place on ideological commitment versus political pragmatism? Is it 75-25 for you? Vice versa? Do you prefer a candidate who most of the time holds true to their ideological purity even if it means often tanking wishy-washy compromises? Do you want someone who can pass the bill, whatever it ends up being, at all costs? I won’t say what your personal matrix of demands should look like, that’s ultimately up to you, but I will say it probably shouldn’t be 100-0 or close to that in any direction.
Jordan will almost certainly be leaving behind a still-dominant progressive bloc in the City Council, and contrary to the stale conventional wisdom, I think the bloc has shown that it can be effective (regardless of whether members are putatively part of the formal Progressive Caucus, which, as we wrote about in February, kind of blew itself up). In its battles with moderate Mayor Eric Adams, it’s extracted concessions, including rollbacks to cuts to school funding and libraries, and advanced bills that put it at the forefront of national conversations around biometric surveillance, for example. Firebrand members like finance chair Justin Brannan have faced off with the mayor around topics like the city’s long-term costs from receiving asylum seekers, which threatened to blow giant budget holes.
For a political group often maligned as earnest but fundamentally inept, the next few years will be a chance for New York City’s progressives to further define themselves; will they be moralists in the mold of Jordan, or will they disavow this stereotype?