January 26, By Christian Murray
Social media has become the lifeblood of Jimmy Van Bramer’s office.
If you want to know where he is, there is a strong chance there is a tweet or a Facebook post in the past hour saying where he is or what he’s up to.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a weekend or weekday.
“It’s 5:00 am on Saturday and I am on the #LIC bus to the women’s march on Washington,” read a tweet that he fired out that morning. The tweet is accompanied by a photo of his all-too-familiar face donning a pink woolen hat that came to symbolize the massive event.
Hours later there are photos of him with protesters at the march. The tweet is accompanied by the hash tag– #queensvalues—that he began using after the presidential election as a symbol of resistance to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Van Bramer, who is not shy about touting his accomplishments, says these postings and tweets are not photo ops but instead are about transparency.
“I promised voters that I would be accessible, accountable and transparent and I believe in reporting to my constituents about what I’m doing. I do that with social media every day.”
Last week, Van Bramer came out with his annual 18-page report stating his 2016 achievements. The report largely encapsulates what he has announced on a daily basis through social media—and features items that were addressed in his multi-page quarterly reports.
This year’s report states in large font: “Working for You…22,496 cases,” referring to the number of constituent cases Van Bramer and his staff have handled in his seven years in office. Furthermore, it said that in 2016 he served on six committees—including as chair of Cultural Affairs and Libraries–and had a “94% attendance record.”
Van Bramer has been releasing an annual report card—a self-assessment, of sorts—since he took office in 2009. It is a rare concept, since few– if any– other council members do it.
Van Bramer’s report is like his own highlight reel and aims to spell out his achievements.
The report focuses heavily on new school buildings, park upgrades, housing and fighting for social justice.
New School Buildings
The report outlines the work he has done to bring new schools and school buildings to the district.
Van Bramer said that a new school building will open at PS 11 in Woodside this September. The new structure will add 350 seats to the 54-25 Skillman Avenue elementary school.
He said work on a 600-seat building at IS 125, a middle school located at 46-02 47th Avenue, is on track and that that structure is expected to open in September 2018.
Meanwhile, last year, Van Bramer announced that a middle school would be coming to the corner of 48th Street and Barnett Avenue. The school, located on the periphery of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, is likely to open in 2019 or 2020.
In addition, Van Bramer and the School Construction Authority announced in 2016 that three elementary schools will be built on the Long Island City waterfront in coming years.
The announcement of a middle school at 48th Street/Barnett Avenue was not without controversy as many Sunnyside Garden’s residents were hesitant to support it since its design remains unknown. However, it did get the support of Community Board 2 on the condition that a community advisory panel is formed to weigh in on the project.
The number of seats that will be at the middle school has not been firmly established. Early estimates were 600, but that number is subject to change.
Van Bramer claims he has served Western Queens well when it comes to bringing schools to the district.
“There have been 10 new school buildings that have been built, funded or are in design since I have been in office. When the community asked for new schools in Long Island City I delivered. When the people asked for a middle school in Sunnyside/Woodside, I delivered and I will keep on pushing for more.”
Van Bramer believes he has developed a reputation for being the go-to guy for new schools.
“The parents—the mothers and fathers in my district—know that education is a top priority of mind and building schools is something that I do,” he said.
Phipps and development
Several achievements—as well as controversies—took place in Sunnyside Gardens last year. The Phipps Organization’s plan to develop a 210-unit affordable housing complex at 50-25 Barnett Avenue—backed by the Mayor– was nixed by Van Bramer, when he refused to support Phipps’ application for a zoning change that it needed in order for the development to proceed.
While Van Bramer’s decision to torpedo the development was deemed popular in Sunnyside and Woodside, he was at odds with the mayor and was criticized by editorial boards at an array of different publications.
Van Bramer believes he made the right move in pooh-poohing the project. “My job is to represent my constituents, to hear them as best as I can. I will work with the mayor when I believe it is in the best interest of the district and stand up to him with I think I should. Obviously on Phipps we had a disagreement.”
Van Bramer is likely to be in discussions with Mayor de Blasio about development again this year when the mayor’s plan to upzone Queens Plaza/Court Square to make provision for affordable housing is unveiled.
Van Bramer said he will stand up to the mayor if needed and points to the Phipps project. However, he did concede that the Phipps rezoning plan was not nearly as far reaching as the changes that might take place in Long Island City.
Van Bramer is also likely to be in active discussions with the mayor over the proposed mega-development of Sunnyside Yards. The city’s Sunnyside Yards feasibility study is expected to come out soon. The Mayor has said he wants to deck sections of the yards to put up thousands of affordable units. Van Bramer has in the past expressed opposition to the plan.
Van Bramer announced that a new public park will be opening in Sunnyside.
The former Phipps playground site, a privately-owned property located on the corner of 39th Avenue and 50th Street, will be purchased by the city to become a public park. The city is in negotiations with the owner, Harry Otterman, to finalize the sale. The city has allocated $3 million toward the purchase and renovation of the site.
Otterman had tried to develop the former playground. In 2014 he put forward plans to build eight units on the site—alongside an aluminaire house—but was blocked from doing so by Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Several parks in Sunnyside/Woodside were upgraded in 2016, Van Bramer said, with others being worked on.
The basketball courts at Noonan Park and at Woodside Houses were completed and work continued on the $2 million revamp of Big Bush Park. Work has also begun on the upgrade to the dog run at Doughboy Park.
Meanwhile, $3 million has been allocated toward the renovation of Hart Playground in Woodside.
Van Bramer said many of his constituents reached out to his office about transportation issues last year– from 7 train problems to road safety. According to his annual report, 16 percent of constituent cases dealt with transportation issues last year.
In 2016, the complaints about the 7 train dealt largely with platform overcrowding, delays and crowding in general.
Van Bramer said that he received many complaints about the dilapidated conditions of the 52nd Street subway station as well as the escalator that had been out of order at 61st Street since November.
Two weeks ago, Van Bramer issued a statement chiding the agency for failing to repair the station in a timely manner. The escalator is reportedly up and running again.
Van Bramer said he checks the twitter feed of @7trainblues to see how well 7 train service is doing on daily basis. Additionally constituents are quick to tweet him if there are any service problems.
Van Bramer has held many rallies calling on the MTA to improve its service. He claims that they are effective, despite the fact that the MTA is a state-run agency and is not under the control of the city.
“They take notice,” Van Bramer claims. “I have been told that the MTA pays attention. They don’t like it when we bring attention to them and blast them.”
Van Bramer has spent a significant amount of time in the past two months speaking out against President Donald Trump and the campaign he ran to win the White House.
“Donald Trump used language that was hurtful and hateful and he has frightened a lot of people in our neighborhood,” Van Bramer said. “As a leader I felt that it was important to speak out.”
He organized a march over the Queensboro Bridge to Trump Tower arguing that Trump’s values do not reflect #queensvalues. He organized a post-election meeting for concerned residents that was attended by about 500 people, and organized a self-defense class so constituents felt able to stand up for themselves and fight back.
Van Bramer does not believe his response to the election has been excessive. He said that people in the district are worried.
“If you are an 8-year-old and the most powerful person in the worlds says I want to deport your family that is very frightening. Many children are afraid that someone will knock on their door and send them back. These are little children we are talking about who are interested in Pokemon and have favorite animals.”
Van Bramer’s report card notes that he held, or co-hosted, 37 town hall meetings in 2016.
He points to other achievements that stemmed from his role as the city council’s chair of Cultural Affairs and Libraries He noted the permanent funding for six-day library service and the opening of a new reading room at the Court Square Library. The report states that $130 million of city funding was allocated toward capital funding for cultural institutions.
Van Bramer said last week that the Hunters Point Library, a $38 million project, is still on track to open in summer.
Van Bramer the politician
Van Bramer, who is up for reelection in November, said he intends to run for city council again this year, which would be his final term due to term limits. He said that he wants to become the council speaker if reelected and has been actively raising funds to do so. He has built a campaign war chest to the tune of $400,000.
After his time at the council, there will be other slots that will open. Melinda Katz will be term limited from her job as Queens Borough president and several citywide elected positions will come available.
However, in the short term Van Bramer said his focus is on this district.
“I want to remain the councilman for the 26th District. I love this job,” he said.
For Van Bramer’s report, click here.