Riverfront development, climate change and whether city residents should be allowed to own chickens were among the topics discussed and debated Tuesday by the five candidates for mayor of Albany at a public forum on sustainability.
The forum, sponsored by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, gave the candidates the opportunity to share their knowledge and ideas on local, state and national environmental issues.
Appearing at the forum were: Kathy Sheehan, Albany city treasurer; former Common Council member Corey Ellis; Joseph Sullivan, a frequent candidate for political office; Jesse Calhoun, a preschool teacher who is active in the Occupy Albany movement and hosts a radio show called “New York Liberty Radio;” and local personality and activist Marlon Anderson.
The mayoral candidates are all Democrats, except Sullivan, who is running on the Conservative Party line, and Calhoun, a Republican. Anderson is a write-in candidate. Sheehan and Ellis are considered the front-runners in the race.
Sheehan has the endorsement of the powerful Albany County Democratic Committee; if elected, she would be the city’s first female mayor. Ellis is a familiar face in Albany politics. He is the city’s 11th Ward Democratic leader and challenged Jennings in the 2009 mayoral election, winning 44 percent of the Democratic primary vote.
In Albany, the Democratic Party is such a powerhouse that the winner of the party primary is virtually assured of a general election victory.
Held at The Linda on Central Avenue, the forum was moderated by Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, and Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters Fund, who took turns asking questions submitted by the public. Each question was directed at a single candidate, who was given two minutes to respond; after the two minutes were up, the other candidates had the opportunity to provide a one-minute response.
One of the livelier discussions concerned whether the candidates supported legalizing backyard ownership of chickens; the query sparked applause from the audience. Two years ago, Jennings vetoed legislation that would have permitted city residents to own hens, saying the legislation wasn’t thought out far enough.
Sheehan said she supported allowing residents to own chickens, while Ellis and Sullivan said they would support creating certain zones where chickens could be kept. Anderson said chickens have no place in the city.
“We have to be willing to embrace change,” Sheehan said. “Of course we have to have guidelines around it. ... I want to look at this as part of an overall broader strategy for access to healthy foods ... for children to learn about animals and where food comes from.”
“We don’t want to pit neighbor against neighbor against neighbor,” Ellis said. “We definitely need an area that is zoned for [chickens]. If you do that, you eliminate this fight that happened with the chicken ordinance two years ago.”
“I don’t subscribe to the premise of animal husbandry in the city,” Anderson said. “There’s a reason our ag-tech schools are located far away from the city.”
The candidates all expressed support for continuing to develop Albany’s riverfront, though they differed on how to do so.
Calhoun said the riverfront is a beautiful area that should be used more and suggested development could be encouraged “from an individual level, from the grass roots.” He said the city borrows too much money to make investing in the riverfront economically viable.
“I’d like to see the space used more,” he said. “Maybe movies, a movie night down by the river.”
Anderson bashed the recent proposal to build an aquarium downtown and said a riverfront casino, along with a new hotel and convention center, would generate jobs and bring more people downtown.
One seemingly pie-in-the-sky idea appeared to have widespread support: Sullivan suggested demolishing Interstate 787, which he referring to as a “monstrosity,” would open up the city’s waterfront, and Sheehan also expressed a desire to get rid of the elevated highway that separates downtown Albany from the Hudson River.
“We start now to work with the [state Department of Transportation] to plan for the obsolescence of 787, so that we can say, ‘What was that road?’ ” Sheehan said.
She said the riverfront is a “tremendous resource” that is currently underutilized as a place of recreation. Discussion, she said, should center around “building a boathouse, not a bar.”
Under Jennings, a pedestrian footbridge from downtown to the Corning Preserve was constructed, as well as an amphitheater on the riverfront. During the summer, the amphitheater is the site of the popular Alive at Five concert series.
The candidates also discussed whether the city should work to create a land bank. Last year, the Albany County Legislature defeated a proposal supported by a coalition of grass-roots and advocacy groups. Earlier this year, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced he would direct $20 million toward the funding of land banks, which allow municipalities to buy blighted properties and redevelop them with input from the community.
Sheehan described herself as an advocate for land banks. She noted one objection to the failed proposal was the amount of money required to pay for it and said the state funding makes creating a land bank financially feasible.
“The money will come,” she said. “The state wants to incentivize this. We already spend a million dollars a year tearing down buildings, boarding them up and doing debris clean-up.” She suggested the county Legislature partner with the Schenectady land bank “so we can benefit from a regional approach and learn from one another.”
Ellis said he liked the idea of a regional land bank. “I like the process of a regional land bank,” he said. “Schenectady, they have a land bank. Why aren’t we teaming up with them?”
He said partnering with other municipalities makes more sense “than starting from scratch.”
The Amsterdam-Schenectady land bank, known as the Land Reutilization Corp. of the Capital Region, was created in 2011.
Sullivan said land banks could become vehicles for fraud, ineptitude and corruption and said the city’s problems should be solved locally, without state involvement or money.
The candidates were also asked about President Barack Obama’s recent call to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, one of the main causes of climate change. Sheehan said she was “thrilled” with the president’s proposal and said it’s important to develop plans for dealing with a hotter, rainier future.
“Where are we going to send people when we have a 100-degree heat wave that lasts for six days?” she said.
Calhoun called for the city to develop its own source of “decentralized, on-site, clean energy.”
Sullivan said Obama’s climate change policies are “wrong” and that “2014 is the chance to change all that.”