Q&A with Jessica Chait, Manhattan Community Board 4’s New Chair

From the January 3,2024 full board meeting: MCB4 Chair Jessica Chait, with District Manager Jesse Bodine on the left. | Screenshot by CCNews, via the MCB4 YouTube channel

About Jessica Chait

Chair of Manhattan Community Board 4

The San Antonio, Texas native holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in Public Administration from New York University. As the Met Council’s Managing Director of Food Programs and Policy, Jessica manages the largest free kosher food distribution program in the world—having overseen the program’s growth from 52,000 clients a month (as of her arrival at the Met Council in 2018) to 200,000 at present. Included in Jessica’s work, is an increasing emphasis on addressing food insecurity among halal requiring New Yorkers as well. Prior to joining the Met Council, she worked for UJA-Federation of New York in various roles, culminating as Chief of Staff.

Jessica joined Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) in 2018, and then served as Co-secretary, Second and then First Vice Chair, as well as Co-Chair of the Chelsea Land Use committee and as a member of the Housing, Health & Human Services and ACES (Arts, Culture, Education and Schools) committees. To view her debut as MCB4 Chair—at the January 3, 2024 Full Board Meeting— click here.

Scott Stiffler, for Chelsea Community News (CCNews): What motivated you to join Manhattan Community Board 4, and why did you pursue the position of Chair?

Jessica Chait, Manhattan Community Board Chair (Chait): I’ve spent my career in the non-profit space—but before joining Manhattan Community Board 4, I felt I was missing the opportunity to have a direct engagement with—and impact on—the neighborhood. Joining the board was immediately rewarding and a real education. I was so impressed by the tremendous knowledge and commitment around its tables. I was motivated to have more opportunities to work alongside our most dedicated and informed board members on the issues impacting our community. That lead me to the leadership path.

CCNews: Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine has opened the application process for becoming a Manhattan community board member. What should potential applicants know about the challenges and rewards of this volunteer position?

Chait: There’s no question that being a board member is a real commitment. Members serve on two committees and attend a monthly board meeting—and that’s just the beginning. Like most things in life, the more you give, the more you get, and I think those who have found the board particularly rewarding are those who have committed themselves to supporting their committee with outside, ongoing education, letter writing support, and the like. But one should not to be deterred: We are actively looking for people who can bring the benefit of their experiences—personally and professionally—and are excited to bring their perspectives and voices to the board.

CCNews: As Chair, you’ll frequently interact with the MCB4 District Manager and leaders of MCB4’s various committees. What do you see as your duties in this capacity, and how would you describe the management style you’ll bring to the position of Chair?

Chait: Community Board 4 is fortunate to have an incredible professional staff led by District Manager Jesse Bodine, and experienced and dedicated committee chairs—many of whom are widely recognized as experts in their respective fields. As Chair, I see my role as helping the District Manager and our committees fulfill their responsibilities, while trying to lift up and align community perspectives, resources, and stakeholders to further enhance our shared efforts.

CCNews: What are some of the topics/issues you see as being at the forefront of MCB4 concerns, during your time as Chair?

Chait: CB4 has no shortage of major projects at our doorstep. NYCHA’s Fulton and Elliot project, Port Authority Bus Terminal Replacement, anticipated casino applications, Hudson River Park’s Pier 76 plans — and that’s just to name a few of the projects that we are actively working on.

CCNews: Regarding the above question—assuming the move to bring a public/private development deal to Chelsea’s NYCHA properties is among your answers—how is the Board currently making this sprawling topic understandable to all? What aspects of the topic will be front-and-center at MCB4 in 2024?

Chait: Sprawling is a good word to describe what is being proposed. It is a massive project with massive implications that need to be understood by all, beginning with, but not limited to, the NYCHA residents who will be most directly impacted. CB4 has held numerous meetings on the topic—ranging from land use considerations to tenants’ rights—and will continue to do so. Meanwhile, now that the draft scope of work for the EIS (Environment Impact Statement) has been released, NYCHA will be hosting three hearings on the topic, and we encourage people to participate. More information can be found on the MCB4 website.

Photo of Jessica Chait by Stefan Klapko.

CCNews: Assuming some form of the NYCHA public/private partnership is greenlighted, then when the dust (literally) settles, that part of West Chelsea will see an influx of new market rate residents, alongside longtimers returning to their newly built or significantly renovated NYCHA housing. What responsibility do the architects of this public/private action have to address the cultural, economic, social changes that are certain to happen—and what are you (and other architects/shareholders) doing about it?

Chait: As mentioned, the draft scope of work of the Environment Impact Study (EIS) was recently released. Among other things, the EIS outlines 20 different potential areas of consequence, ranging from open space to community facilities, public health to design. MCB4, and in particular our Chelsea Land Use committee, co-chaired by Kerry Keenan and former board chair Jeffrey LeFrancois, will be leading a process to ensure that the considerations that are raised are weighed as part of any proposed plan, and, of course, they will work closely with our Housing, Health & Human Services committee, co-chaired by Maria Ortiz and Joe Restuccia. We are fortunate to have strong committees in these areas. I know we look forward to leveraging the vast project-specific knowledge that our board holds, as well as the board’s experience on many other major rezoning projects, including Hudson Yards.

CCNews: Letters written as drafts by committees (once approved by the full board) often influence policy and decisions, despite the fact that they cannot compel the recipient to heed the Board’s recommendations/requests. What are the effective tools MCB4 has to see its will enacted?

Chait: MCB4 has long enjoyed very positive working relationships with our elected officials as well as our city and state agencies, all of which are key partners in advancing policy and programs in our district—and sometimes even beyond. Open communication, professionalism, respect and the benefit of having some of the most dedicated and informed board members [in NYC] have all contributed greatly to our success and are among the key elements we hope to rely on going forward, as well.

CCNews: Regarding the Public Session of CB4 meetings, where the general public is given 2 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak their piece: Your by-laws state, “If more than 20 persons have signed up to speak at the public session, the Chairperson may at his/her/their discretion restrict the speaking time to 1 minute.” What do you say to the dissatisfied; those who’ve arrived with prepared statements and/or a determination to use the full 2 minutes?

Chait: As someone who most recently had the responsibility of managing the Public Session, I saw first-hand how difficult it is to limit people’s time. We are a board that values and relies on community input; we also want to balance going broad with going deep. Thankfully, we have many meetings and our board office is very accessible, making the public session at a monthly board meeting just one of the many ways one can make their voice heard.

CCNews: On occasions where there are many who’ve showed up to comment on an Agenda item—or many agenda items, setting the stage for a meeting of exceptional length—it has become a common (or at least not infrequent) practice of MCB4 to ask Public Session participants to not bring up opinions/angles/comments expressed by a previous participant. Is it fair to request that a guest speaker not fully express themselves, in the interest of saving time?

Chair: As mentioned, hearing from everyone is not only important to us, it is critical. Keeping in mind the board meeting is just one place to make ones’ voice heard, we also have to balance going deeper on a topic with the opportunity to hear from others who might represent different perspectives or altogether different topics. But let me be clear: All are welcome, and we would never say someone can’t speak on a previously spoken topic, rather, we ask that they condense their remarks to reflect an affirmation of previously provided comments.

CCNews: Is 80/20 housing still a viable path toward affordable housing? Are there other strategies MCB4 can and/or will pursue to secure more physical space for residents?

Chait: We have continued to have success in pushing for affordable units exceeding 80/20 in projects that require rezoning. And, as I am sure you saw last year, the board was successful in securing meaningful coverage of our affordable housing plan—which was written about the NYTimes and can also be found on our website. We look forward to continuing to advance the plan and are eager to pursue the opportunities outlined within.

—END—

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