NYC Mayoral Race: Are Developers Consolidating Their Grip On New York?


The Barclay's Center. The Freedom Towers. Dozens of high-rise luxury apartments that dot the High Line and downtown Brooklyn. This is the physical legacy that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will leave behind this year. But will this 12-year construction uptick be sustained by his successor? That's the question real estate has been asking themselves — and New Yorkers should be as well.  

Real estate development may be one of the most important but least understood issues on the average New Yorker's political radar. Though one could argue that there's a long and loud history of vocal "Not In My Backyard folks" (NIMBYists hereafter) mobilizing to keep their favorite family grocery store or auto body shop from being fed to big box retail, most New Yorkers are oblivious to the behind-the-scenes multi-million dollar transactions that dictate not only changes in the physical landscape but impact the housing, job and economic prospects for thousands of citizens. Voters ought to recognize that their input in the real estate process can be proactively articulated at the ballot box starting with next month's primary.

New York City's mayor appoints the directors of the Economic Development Corporation and Housing Preservation and Development and the chairperson and majority of board members of the Housing Development Corporation. (The institution varies based on what type of construction the city is seeking.) These three teams drive the majority of real estate transactions in this city — both choosing the city-owned land parcels to develop and which developer(s) will lead this charge.

This multi-year process includes a request-for-proposal where developers, often in conjunction with community partners, submit a budget, time-line and intentions for building a site. In turn, the city negotiates with these parties to hammer out how much developers will pay for the rights to the land and what type of financial incentives the New York City will offer in exchange. After the city and developers agree to a set of financial and construction terms, the process opens for public input through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP.) Thus, it's pretty late in the game when the sign-totting NIMYBYists enter.

Despite a drawn-out campaign season, real estate and development issues haven't headlined the mayoral campaign so finding candidates' thoughts may require some voter investigation. That said, several New York City government watchdog blogs covered last month's Brooklyn Reform Coalition-sponsored mayoral forum where candidates were asked how they would hold the Atlantic Yards and Barclay Center developer, Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC), accountable for bringing the promised jobs and housing to the area.  

Of the five candidates there (only Democrats were in attendance,) both current City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio adamantly agreed that FCRC had to measure up to their promises.

"Let's be real about the fact that the mayor has immense power to create discipline when it comes to the development community. If developers don't keep their promises to the city, I do not think the legal limitations stand in their way," said de Blasio. "If they don't keep their end of the bargain, the answer from City Hall has to be no."

Liu expressed frustration FCRC.

"People have been kicked out of their homes. Promises of jobs and affordable housing ... we don't see any housing. We see some popcorn vendors," said Liu. "After hundreds of millions in city, state, and MTA subsidies ... all we have is a stadium."

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, on the other hand, pushed for transparency, suggesting that it was the responsibility of elected officials to "to focus on what was committed to, being in the room ... to get reports on where things are happen, and to be very clear and transparent on where things are at ... hands-on follow up." (Notably, both of the above citizen blogs were dubious about how hard Quinn would work to carry this investigation to fruition.)

Both former Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Brooklyn-based City Councilmember Sal Albanese skirted around the entire topic, potentially indicating that either they had little knowledge of this agreement or unwillingness to address it head on. Thompson discussed the importance of using multiple developers though didn't suggest this in the context of Atlantic Yards.         

Sal Albanese, on the other hand, made a point that he had not taken any developer money in his race and that one of the core problem was developers fund-raising for candidates' elections.

While much of the rhetoric seemingly points to candidates distancing themselves from embracing real estate developers and pandering to voters who were not fans of FCRC, voters who would want to see greater real estate restraint would be wise to investigate both the fundraising and political history before judging candidates' speech.

If not, of all the stakeholders hoping to whisper in the next mayor's ear, real estate developers may be best set up for success. Flush with the cash and political clout from a successful Bloomberg administration, voters should not be surprised if their City Hall presence becomes as permanent as the Barclay Center itself.