| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:26

    if borough president scott stringer had a competitive race this fall, his state of the borough could double as a stump speech, a case for his re-election.

    stringer will, in fact, go before voters this year, although with a challenger yet to emerge, his re-election is all but guaranteed.

    still, he is in a way making the case for his office.

    most of this year's state of the borough is like a best-of stringer reel, looking back at the progress made on proposals he introduced to the public in last year's speech. his accomplishments throughout 2008, he notes in the speech, act as the model for government doing more with less in the coming months as the city tries to grapple with a tanking economy.

    "in the state of the borough, we talk about our achievements," stringer said during an interview in his downtown office, a few weeks before the address. "but we really look at the future and what our next goals are for the year."

    his proposals in this year's address are addendums to past initiatives, such as his 2008 report on school overcrowding, which he boasts will soon lead to a new school in the west village as part of new york university's expansion. and the "green icing on the cake" of his 2008 go green initiative will be the september opening of an asthma center in east harlem.

    "as always," stringer said in his speech, "one place to find guidance is in the trials and triumphs of the past."

    the state of the borough, or state or city, gives a politician the platform to expound on their successes, localize national concerns, such as the economy, and launch new initiatives.

    but stringer's office does not allow him to introduce legislation, given the 1989 supreme court case that abolished the board of estimate and, therefore, most of the power of the borough presidents who sat on the board. and so stringer has immersed himself in the office's last remaining power, the borough's land use procedure, formally known as the uniform land use review process (ulurp).

    "land use and zoning is where the borough president can have a meaningful impact," stringer said. "we try to be forward thinking given the expertise this office has."

    yet rumors are swirling that borough presidents and community boards may be cut out of land use review during the next city charter revision in order to speed up the seven-month-long process. and the borough presidency is already dying a death by a thousand cuts: the office's budget, controlled by the mayor, is shrinking.

    for stringer, losing his land use and rezoning power would render his office nearly obsolete. he is fighting to keep this power like it's a race for his political future-because in many ways, it is.

    on a balmy february afternoon, stringer stood on the steps of union square against a backdrop of the farmers' market. he unveiled his plan to create a "food shed" within the state that will quickly and cheaply provide healthier food to poor neighborhoods. the sign to his right mapped out in a variety of colors the potential for agricultural development throughout the northeast.

    flanked by a small crowd of columbia university students who assisted in this report ("they're the experts, not me," he said), stringer became a policy pitchman.

    "apples we get from washington state can come from washington county in new york. we talk more about food desserts rather than food deserts," stringer said, criticizing the dearth of supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods.

    his report suggests using zoning incentives to spur healthy food options, including an exemption or an allowance to increase space if supermarkets are considered when rezoning neighborhoods.

    "we continue to fail to use the zoning laws that we have on the books to empower people in having a say in what is happening in their neighborhoods," stringer said at the event. "it's time to bring vegetables closer to home."

    no matter the topic of stringer's reports, whether he is discussing healthy food initiatives in poor neighborhoods or small business assistance, land use and zoning is the crux of nearly every topic. aside from using the bully pulpit, this is the only way stringer can realize his goals.

    "people respect this office for its smarts and land use capabilities," stringer said. "i would not be satisfied if we released a report and there wasn't a goal at the end."

    stringer has put his official land use staff to work, and dispatched a stable of 12 land use fellows, comprising graduate architecture and city planning students who rotate each september, to assist manhattan community boards. the fellows, who receive a $5,000 stipend for the academic year, help the boards evaluate large development projects.

    in his state of the borough address, stringer hailed the fellows as a success, announcing that mayor michael bloomberg agreed to expand the program to the city's 59 community boards. one fellow, julie gonzalez, was even slated to introduce gov. david paterson at the beginning of the event.

    the land use fellowship program was the final piece of stringer's community board reform, which was his campaign promise when he ran for borough hall. though stringer kept the tradition of paying deference to council members in referring board members, he also set up a screening panel and interview process to combat patronage.

    "i believe the changes we've made to manhattan's community boards will be the most lasting accomplishment of my first term in office," he said in his address.

    lyle frank, chair of community board 6 on the east side, said the land use fellows' contributions have aided the board in presenting information on waterfront jurisdiction and studying liquor license laws. the last fellow on the board developed a survey for public plazas, which led to a task force.

    "this is something we continue to work on with the department of buildings and city planning to make sure the public is getting proper space required in public plazas," frank said. "the fellows do very professional, very important work that has tangible benefits."

    the land use fellow for community board 7, covering the upper west side, helped board members draft a letter to the department of city planning detailing potential concerns about the riverside south development, which has yet to enter the land use review process.

    "the land use fellows have been a wonderful resource for the board," said helen rosenthal, the board chair.

    with large developments like riverside south, the community boards, which have a nonbinding vote on these matters, can help clarify the myriad of complaints neighbors may have. stringer has been adept at actualizing those complaints into achievable demands, such as reducing square footage or including space for a new public school.

    "the community board can list all the concerns they have," said council member gale brewer, who has worked on several large land use issues. "the borough president's office can say 'this is how you get there.'"

    stringer has received accolades for emboldening community boards to articulate their opposition to get concessions from developers. and perhaps surprisingly, developers and real estate interests have appreciated stringer's candor and his ability to provide a forum to hash out ideas and diffuse community opposition. he has also been a navigator for these interests, helping to make key changes to projects that ease community resistance while making sure the project is still profitable for the developer and the city as a whole, said michael slattery, senior vice president of the real estate board of new york.

    "the last thing you want, if you're a builder, is eight different groups each asking for different things," slattery said.

    developer sheldon solow, who is building a 9.8-acre housing and commercial project south of the united nations, made major concessions to the original plan at the behest of the community board, including bulk reductions and creating space for a new school and waterfront public park.

    community board 6 members drafted an alternative plan to solow's project that aided council member dan garodnick in assessing the project.

    "it made my job much easier," garodnick said. "i did not have to guess about the community board's priorities."

    by the time the city council's land use committee reviewed the plan, garodnick had decided to vote for it-a crucial move, given that the development was in his district and needed his support to pass the full council.

    stringer called the solow development the community board working at its best, and he argues that cutting out community boards and borough presidents from the land use review process would actually slow down development.

    "we'll end up paying more down the line: projects stalled, more protests, people dissatisfied with their government," stringer said. "while the developer may have what he thinks is a perfect proposal, obviously it has to be shaped, compromised and worked on with the community. and that's what our land use process is all about."

    on a project such as extell's riverside south development, which has yet to start the land use review process, stringer has sought ways to mitigate the inevitable opposition to the currently 8.2-acre proposal south of west 72nd street. extell has already created a shell on the land in which a new public school can be built.

    george arzt, an extell spokesman, said stringer keeps an ear to developer's needs as well as community concerns to seek solutions on school overcrowding, public park space and density. arzt said that stringer, like the other elected officials in the area, has been adamant about adding a public school to an overcrowded district.

    rather than acting as a mediator who sets a compromise, arzt added, stringer listens to arguments and presents options for both sides.

    "he's not henry kissinger," arzt said. "he's more like the supreme court."

    behind stringer's persona of a reformer with a drown-'em-in-detail approach to policy lies a skilled, disciplined politician with fundraising prowess.

    his political history has alternated between losses and victories.

    four years after losing a council primary, he succeeded now-rep. jerrold nadler in the assembly. and four years after losing a public advocate bid, he beat eight other candidates to win the borough presidency.

    but losing his land use and zoning power may threaten his prospects for citywide office. and stringer clearly has ambition for a higher position.

    before term limits were extended to three from two, the political chatter had stringer opting out of an easy re-election to make a run for the open public advocate seat. if stringer had stayed on for another term as borough president, he would have hit his two-term limit and been forced to look for the next political race when other citywide officials were in their first terms. that would force stringer to attempt the herculean task of deposing an incumbent.

    but even with public advocate betsy gotbaum declining to run for a third time, which put her seat in play once again, the term limit extension opened a new door for stringer: city hall.

    stringer can now seek an easy re-election as borough president, and should bloomberg be successful in his bid for a third and final term, there will be an open race for the city's top spot in 2013.

    and if history is a guide, stringer will run, just as nearly every manhattan borough president in the last 60 years has done. only two, however, were successful: david dinkins and robert wagner.

    "he's not going to stay where he is," said joseph mercurio, political consultant and former aide to nadler. "he can raise a lot of money and put himself in the space of opportunity."

    stringer has already amassed $1.5 million in campaign contributions, little of which will be spent on getting re-elected.

    but waiting until 2013 to make his move comes with the risk that the borough presidency will cease to exist. bloomberg has promised to call a commission to review and change the city charter. if the borough presidents lose land use and zoning powers and are stripped down to a ceremonial role, a compelling argument can be made to abolish the seat all together, which could hurt his chances at higher office.

    "he's used a very limited office in a creative way," said hank sheinkopf, a veteran democratic consultant. "the danger he faces is if he loses that visibility."

    for now, though, stringer is anything but invisible.

    his strength lays in his ubiquity throughout manhattan, whether at a press conference, rally, crane collapse or making a personal appearance at a community board.

    "as a borough president, when something happens in this borough," stringer said, "i'm there on the scene."