Queens Borough President Donovan Richards sat down virtually with the Queens Chronicle on Monday to go over his first 160 days in office as he seeks re-election. Jobs, jobs and more jobs for residents of the World’s Borough are the cornerstone of his campaign.
Queens leading the state with one million vaccinations; securing $17.5 million of grants through the New York Mets for small businesses and street vendors; and digitizing community boards were just a few of the initiatives Richards managed to accomplish through his brief tenure in this tumultuous year.
“We had 931 community board applications this year at the Borough President’s Office,” said Richards, who faces Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley in the June 22 Democratic primary. “On top of that we created a code of conduct, which is now being fully implemented.”
The borough’s 14 community boards went through their bylaws and updated them to outline the responsibilities of members, established rules to help maintain the legal and ethical integrity of their work and created an inclusive environment for the board network, according to queensbp.org.
Digitizing community board applications led to approximately one-third of the 373 appointees being first-time members, 70 percent being women and 60 percent being people of color and an overall uptick in applicants of 56.5 percent.
Richards also fought to help get funds back to build the 116th Precinct in Rosedale, which was approved back in 2017 but temporarily lost funding due to the coronavirus pandemic. The precinct will help cut emergency response times from the 105th Precinct in Queens Village.
“This precinct is going to have a community center in it, a food pantry in it and a street plaza,” said Richards. “The mayor not only returned the $92 million, but it has also got an additional $10 million or more attached to it.”
The initial $92 million that was taken away will go toward building a community center at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans.
As the co-chairman of the Community Advisory Council for John F. Kennedy International Airport, Richards has helped to bring 20,000 jobs — 10,000 of them union —through the redevelopment of Terminal 1.
“I spearheaded the redevelopment of Terminal 1 with Congressman Gregory Meeks,” he said. “We also got a local hiring agreement and a M/WBE agreement.”
Keeping small businesses open and supporting them as well as street vendors are some of Richards’ key initiatives to bring the borough back.
“One of the things we wanted to do was that our office would have somebody that is a 24/7 resource for the small business community,” said Richards. “Shurn Anderson has been wonderful about this and getting people informed about the grants.”
Anderson is the director of economic development at the Queens Borough President’s Office.
The office worked with the city and Pursuit, a business that provides affordable loans, to dispense a $17.5 million donation from Steve Cohen, the Mets owner and executive vice president of community finance at the firm.
The Queens Small Business Grant Program gave businesses upwards of $20,000 toward operational expenses from a grant worth $15 million. At least 750 businesses were approved for grants averaging over $18,000.
“Although the grant program was good, we still know that it is not enough,” said Richards. “A lot of the bureaucracy [small businesses] encountered was from the Department of Transportation for the Open Restaurants program, FDNY regulations, fines and the State Liquor Authority.”
After doing several walking tours from Astoria to Jamaica to learn about the bureaucratic red tape entrepreneurs are up against, the borough president held monthly meetings with city and state agencies to get them on the same page on rules, regulations and permits for various small businesses.
“All of the agencies on one line made a huge difference on clarifying all of the misinformation out there,” said Richards. “It was challenging for these businesses with this agency saying one thing, another agency saying another thing, the mayor saying one thing and the governor saying something else. Now there is some sunlight and they are coming out of it.”
Despite the roundtables with upwards of 300 businesses, there are still prevalent permitting issues with the city’s Department of Buildings.
“We are not getting as much complaints now, at least in Queens,” said Richards. “There is now more of a one page, one accord system with the different agencies.”
Richards is also looking toward Sunnyside Yard to reinvigorate Queens.
“There is ample opportunity to develop that site,” said Richards.
Some of Richards’ ideas for the area include more affordable housing and schools.
Development of Sunnyside Yard has garnered pushback since Mayor de Blasio announced the initiative back in 2015.
Proposals for the 167-acre site have included building upwards of 11,250 units of affordable housing. Van Bramer considered the initiative to be bad fit for the area he represents and said, “It was not a solid plan.” Gov. Cuomo said the facility was important as maintenance for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.
In 2019, Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy group fighting for smaller class sizes, found that Queens schools were overcrowded by 6,599 students and that school districts 24 and 30 were the most overcrowded.
Overall, however, the number of people in Queens is dropping.
The population has shrunk for the past five years in the borough from 2017 to 2021, according to U.S. Census data.
In 2017, the population decreased by 0.48 percent or 11,020 people and this year it fell by 0.93 percent or 20,750.
Richards is not a strong proponent for defunding the police, but he is a strong advocate for equity.
“I fall in the show me your budget then you’ll show me your priorities,” said Richards. “The city has a $90 billion budget.”
Maintaining businesses will be one aspect of bringing them back, but keeping them safe after one-third of Queens residents said they or someone they knew lost a job in 2020, will be a different problem to tackle.
“We need to make sure that we are working on getting folks hired up,” said Richards. “That means giving them apprenticeship opportunities.”
Richards is in talks with unions about providing apprenticeship opportunities.
Richards supports Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) and others to close Rikers to create green jobs.
Constantinides, a Richards opponent for the Borough President’s Office during the special election last year, believes Rikers Island can be transformed into a green energy hub that will generate upwards of 50,000 green union jobs.
Richards is also paying attention to President Biden’s initiative to invest $10 billion in in clean energy innovation and research and development as a way to spur the economy, get people back to work, lessen reliance on fossil fuels and propel America’s green future.
“Queens is leading in solar installations more than anywhere in the state,” said Richards. “How are we tapping into these good jobs? Wind farms are going to come online, battery storage [implemented] — we are talking six figures jobs with training, training, training, which leads to good jobs.”