Menin Fights: The Downtown Doyenne Who Took on Two Administrations—and Why Manhattan May Be Next
On Monday, April 4, Attorney General Eric Holder admitted defeat. He announced that he would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 conspirators at Guantanamo Bay and not the Foley Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Holder blamed Congress for tying his hands. He did not blame Julie Menin for forcing them.
“How could a community board chair take on the Obama administration?” said Ms. Menin, who took the gavel of downtown’s CB1 in 2005. “And not just the Obama administration, but also the mayor, because at the time the mayor was very clear that he was O.K. with holding the trial in Manhattan and even the $200 million price tag was not a deterrent. In fact, he just said, ‘Stick the federal government with the tab.’
“So what are you going to do about it?,” Ms. Menin continued during an unexpected call to The Observer a few hours after Mr. Holder’s announcement. “You have to battle the Obama administration and you have to battle City Hall, two elephants.”
Community board chairs are generally seen as the pipsqueaks of the political process, agitating for new schools and old folks, but Ms. Menin, 43, has done her best to make an elephant out of her own tenure.
On Friday, Ms. Menin met The Observer for lunch at Jerry’s Cafe on Chambers Street, a block from the board’s office. She arrived with an inch-thick stack of clips, highlighted for easy reference. “And that’s just a small selection,” Ms. Menin said. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you.” The stack served as something of a resume of her tenure, demonstrating a deep commitment to lower Manhattan, as well as a keen understanding of how to build the kind of highly public political profile that could someday lead to even bigger battles.
“No one knows what her ambitions are, but she would certainly make a good candidate,” long-time Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said.
Ms. Menin has tackled all the requisite local issues: ULURP applications, liquor licenses, school overcrowding–“three in three years, no other neighborhood can say that,” she boasted, including one on a site she wrested from a Libby Pataki-led women’s museum. But rare among board chairs, she has tackled national issues as well, such as demanding a review of Indian Point or standing up for Park51, the so-called ground zero mosque.
Ms. Menin said she briefly considered a City Council race in 2009, but ultimately declined against challenging the incumbent Alan Gerson for a third term.
“It kind of like the old Supreme Court saying, when you see someone who’s a good leader, you know it,” said Mr. Gerson, who lost his re-election bid to another upstart, Margaret Chin. “She’s a very good politician, she understands the political process.”
“IT’S NOT as if I came from a family that had four or five kids, where everyone is trying to be heard at the dinner table,” Ms. Menin recalled. An only child from the D.C. suburbs, her mother was an artist–pieces from her collection hang in Ms. Menin’s six-bedroom loft on Franklin Street in Tribeca–and her father was a doctor. Father and daughter used to watch The MacNeil/Lehrer Report each night and debate the issues afterward.
This, and a desire to be closer to her Romanian-born, Holocaust-surviving grandparents led Ms. Menin to Columbia, where she studied political science. Then it was off to Northwestern for law school before returning to Washington to work as a regulatory attorney for Wiley, Rein & Fielding.
It was in New York, where she had come to work in-house for Colgate Palmolive, that Ms. Menin met her husband, Bruce Menin. A fellow Northwestern Law grad five years her senior, he had been converting rentals into condos in his native Miami Beach since 1989 with his cousin. Within five years, The Miami New Times had dubbed their Crescent Heights Investments “South Florida’s most prolific condo company.” It now controls more than 60 properties stretching from there to Chicago, L.A., Honolulu and New York.
They moved into one of these, a converted office building at 25 Broad Street, where Ms. Menin would open the restaurant Vine in 1999, which she sees as one of her first big contributions to the neighborhood. “There was a real need in the community for something besides wood-panelled steak houses,” Ms Menin said. There was $26 grilled wild salmon and $37 filet mignon, as well as a Whole Foods-style takeout bar.
Following 9/11, amidst fights with insurance companies–“I took them on, too,” Ms. Menin said–and the struggle to attract customers to Vine and other downtown businesses, Ms. Menin decided to found the nonprofit Wall Street Rising. (Vine evenutally closed and was replaced by a Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, and Mr. Menin sold the building in 2005 to Kent Swig for $246 million.)
Growing to 30,000 members, Wall Street Rising organized through Do It Downtown! discount cards, concerts, walking tours and sloganeering, and it became the springboard for Ms. Menin’s civic rise. A year later she was named to the design jury for the 9/11 memorial, and in addition to that there was her service on the board and the mayor’s redistricting committee.
“We’d just had the twins in February, and the race was in June, so the timing was a little tricky, but I had a very strong idea of where I could take the board and where I wanted it to go,” Ms. Menin said of her run in 2005.
The previous chair, Madelyn Wils, had been as outspoken if far more impolitic than Ms. Menin, and she was controversially not reappointed by then-Borough President C. Virginia Fields. In the view of some on the board, Ms. Menin used the controversy surrounding Ms. Wils to cast herself as a reformer and push aside the former chair’s deputy, Richard Kennedy. She picked up 70 percent of the vote. She won reelection a year later unanimously.
“I don’t question her word, but I do think she can be swayed by the politics of the situation,” board member Paul Hovitz said. “I don’t cite that as a deficiency, you know, because we work in a political world.”