The topic of Monday night’s borough president forum at Flushing Town Hall was neighborhood preservation.
But Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) and former Councilwoman and Assembly member Melinda Katz spent a good deal of time discussing the real estate industry — and just who is receiving more funding from developers for their campaigns.
At issue was a mailer sent out in which Vallone said the Katz campaign accused him of taking large sums of money from the real estate industry.
“You can lie in a flier, but you can’t lie with me sitting here,” Vallone said.
The councilman said first off that he has raised a lot of money from everyone — he has received more than $1.7 million in private donations and public matching funds while Katz has brought in over $1.2 million — and upon a direct question he told moderators he does not know how much has come from the real estate industry.
“But as a percentage, Melinda Katz has raised far more money from developers than I have,” he said.
He also accused her of hypocrisy, saying Katz, the former Land Use Committee Chairwoman of the City Council, has taken “millions of dollars in six elections” from the real estate industry.
Vallone’s brother, Paul, who is locked in a five-way primary for the Democratic nomination for the 19th Council District, was the subject of similar complaints of real estate backing on Tuesday at a press conference organized by state Sen. Tony Avella — who last week dropped his own borough president campaign.
When Tuesday’s talk actually turned to neighborhood preservation, there were few surprises from the candidates, who also included Democrat Everly Brown and Republican Tony Arcabascio.
All said the borough should be far more aggressive in seeking landmark status from city authorities, and that zoning regulations, properly used, can be one of a borough president’s most effective tools for neighborhood preservation.
Katz pointed to the 6,000 city blocks that were downzoned in her tenure on the land use committee to protect residential neighborhoods, while simultaneously upzoning other areas to encourage economic development.
“That created jobs,” she said.
She also claimed that $300,000 donated to Vallone’s campaign from developers “leaves no representation on the other side.”
Brown said the exchange should give voters pause about both his Democratic opponents.
“They are beholden to developers, not to you,” he said.
Arcabascio said community boards should get to wield more influence over things like zoning policy and landmarking, thus increasing the importance of making considered appointments to the boards.
As for the future use of the old Long Island Rail Road Rockaway Beach right of way, Brown responded with a long silence when asked if it should be converted to a High Line-style park, rebuilt as a rail line or left alone.
He eventually said a park would likely be preferable with more than 250,000 people living within a mile of the tracks.
Arcabascio appreciated that groups have received more than $467,000 to study the feasibility of a linear park, but worries that there will not be a proper study of the possibilities of revitalizing the rail line.
Vallone said his first preference would be a rail line to improve transportation and economic development, but that the cost could prove an obstacle.
Katz, echoing some of Arcabascio’s concerns, said she hopes the coming report will be unbiased when considering the rail and status quo options.
Tangentially, Katz is concerned about how federal Sandy relief money for the Rockaways gets spent, and hopes that things like a new rail line, however beneficial that might prove to be, do not come at the expense of improving and expanding current projects, such as the recently extended ferry service between the Rockaway Peninsula and Manhattan.
The RKO Keith Theater debacle in Flushing also was presented for the candidates’ consideration. Arcabascio, who earlier lamented the number of baseball fields he played on as a youth that now are covered with asphalt or buildings, again pointed to a loss to the borough.
“I saw ‘Rocky’ in that theater,” he said. “That is another of the seven wonders of the world. I don’t understand why nothing was done all these years.”
He, Katz and Vallone said it is imperative that the remaining foyer of the famed theater be preserved.
But the question also led to another exchange of fire between the Democratic frontrunners.
“Over 12 years Melinda Katz was the Land Use chair or working in the Borough President’s Office during this entire debacle,” Vallone said.
“If I’m being attacked here, I must be doing something right,” Katz later replied.
Katz also had a self-inflicted gaffe when she said Queens should receive as much cultural funding as Manhattan — the borough of Lincoln Center, Museum Row, Broadway and the Cloisters, to name a few attractions.
Asked about it afterward, she backtracked, saying that Queens’s cultural funding should be better protected from budget cuts in troubled times.
“If there is a 5 percent across-the-board budget cut, 5 percent is more harmful to the Queens Symphony than it is to the Guggenheim Museum or Lincoln Center,” she said.