OPINION: Foxes guard City Planning henhouse

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | Once upon a time, N.Y.U. sociologist Harvey Molotch described a coalition of large property owners and real estate developers whose interests aligned to create a “growth machine.” Years later, economic historian Jason Barr described a “skyscraper industrial complex” composed of real estate developers and their allied advisers, financiers, trade unions, architects and construction firms, whose economic self-interest demanded unlimited skyscraper construction.

In fact, these forces have crystalized into the most powerful lobby our city has ever known, the Real Estate Board of New York a.k.a. REBNY. Oligarchic families of immense wealth dominate REBNY. Some are family dynasties with thousands of tenants paying rent to them, a political situation not seen since the feudal period.

(Courtesy Lynn Ellsworth)

Such power is a matter of public interest when the industry ends up controlling the government institutions that are meant to regulate that power on behalf of the broader public good. The Department of City Planning is a case in point. There, the foxes have seized the henhouse. Communities cannot have a fair hearing. Any critique of a rezoning is patronizingly dismissed at City Planning as “city NIMBYism.” Public hearings have become kangaroo courts in which commissioners listen in boredom to communities but then proceed to a majority vote along the lines indicated by REBNY.

Of the 13 members of the commission who control the Department of City Planning, one (Douek) is a real estate investor and donor to the mayor, managing a new $75 million “opportunity fund” for Brooklyn.

Another one (Capelli) is a former real estate industry lobbyist.

Five (de la Uz, Knuckles, Eaddy, Knight and Marín) are real estate developers of various types, ranging from a senior employee of Bluestone Group to C.E.O.’s of development corporations to the head of the Fifth Ave. Committee.

The commission’s current chairperson (Lago) ran the Empire State Development Corporation (E.S.D.C.), a real estate development monolith for the state; E.S.D.C. — now known as just E.S.D. — is infamous for abusing eminent domain to the detriment of black and low-income communities, with one academic noting that E.S.D. acts as “Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.”

One commissioner (Levin) has long cheered on the Hudson Yards project, yet is married to a senior partner at Davis, Polk and Wardwell, the same law firm that advises major Hudson Yards developer Extell.

Another Planning commissioner (Cerullo) is C.E.O. of the Grand Central Partnership, a real estate-controlled business improvement district (BID), whose secretary is John Banks, the C.E.O. of REBNY. The partnership pushed for multiple upzonings in Midtown that directly benefitted their board members.

Only one (Ortiz) has a graduate degree in urban planning, however runs a consultancy advising shopping mall owners how to “optimize” their retail tenant mix.

At least two members have conflicts of interest with the Gowanus rezoning project (Bluestone and Fifth Ave. Committee).

At least one (Knuckles) has a clear conflict of interest with the East Harlem rezoning.

Two commissioners are architects with high-rise projects under their belts in Long Island City and Grammercy (Burney and Rampershad).

Is it any wonder that these people rule Planning as if upzoning and real estate profit-making are the same thing as actual urban planning?

The practice of “recusal” does nothing to manage such embedded conflicts of interest. The fix is easy: Edit the City Charter to rule out fox-guarding-henhouse appointments. The Charter Commission is deliberating now, so citizens need to act fast. Do your part and e-mail the Charter Commission at www.charter2019.nyc/submit-your-ideas and tell them to make fixing this situation a top priority.

 Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC

34 Responses to OPINION: Foxes guard City Planning henhouse

  1. Alternate opinion: existing residents have every interest and incentive to resist local development while the city has an obvious interest in development and space for new residents to expand the tax base, improve the environment, reduce housing prices, etc. Putting the locus of power over land use on local residents is like allowing the fox to guard the henhouse.

    • It's odd that you would complain about local residents exerting too much authority in land use issues in New York City when as it currently stands they have virtually none. The real estate lobby is the most powerful interest group in the state. How many rezonings have been thwarted by local community groups? How many building permits have been pulled over neighborhood opposition?

      • Many, many have been thwarted and permits pulled. City councilmembers always campaign on stopping development and they have a unilateral veto on any ULURP application because of councilmanic prerogative. Plenty of developments and rezonings have been snuffed out because a veto was certain or more rarely actually exercised. Furthermore, local groups sue and block and developments and many times primary a sitting councilperson purely on the rare occasion where they fail to live up to NIMBY grounds like with Margaret Chin and Elizabeth Street Garden.

        • Maybe we should put out a list of rezonings and spot rezonings that were "thwarted" (very small in number and significance) and then compare that list to rezonings (spot or otherwise) that were shoved through with at best a few cosmetic changes (a very long list indeed). The balance of power is so obviously on the side of Big Real Estate that it makes a mockery of the idea of democracy. BSA and DCP are just Kangaroo Courts.

          • William Thomas

            Well, we certainly have numbers on the many times local residents have successfully clamored for downzonings to squash development, specifically during the Bloomberg years. Despite Bloomberg's dev. friendly reputation, building capacity was reduced or limited on 86%(!) of the lots that he rezoned, whereas density restrictions were only loosened on the remaining 14%. Although the lots that were upzoned were upzoned more dramatically, altogether, rezonings in the Bloomerberg era only served to increase residential capacity by 1.7%. And the East Village was one of the largest neighborhood downzonings, so this wasn't just a outer borough thing either.

            Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/22/nyregion/22zon

        • How is the Elizabeth Street Garden a NIMBY thing? Those people came up with a BETTER plan for affordable housing with MORE units, not even counting the other alternative sites that could have been in play (such as the one on Centre Street). Chin just dug in her heels because nobody in SoHo and Nolita will vote for her, as she obviously isn't doing it on the policy merits.

          • William Thomas

            It is a supremely NIMBY thing because the garden wasn't even open to the public when the housing was first proposed. The gallery only beautified the space and let people in after they learned there was a risk of losing it. Plus, there are over 200,000 seniors on the affordable housing waitlist, so it's not simply a matter of finding a alternative site. We need to build on every site we can.

          • All the rezoning in the world cannot change the past, but you can't make a successful case for killing the garden on the current merits or its plans for the future. That's just bad, dishonest debating. This neighborhood is deprived of an equal portion of open space today, but I'll guess you don't wanna solve that problem. Heck, we'd settle for a still unequal portion of open space if it were at least adequate. It's not. Not by far.

          • William Thomas

            I actually do think we could get far more open space in the area if we reclaimed street parking for pedestrian areas and garden space. It's far easier to relocate gardens than find lots suitable for housing. And again, ESG is located two blocks away from a 7-acre park. I continue to believe if ESG defenders put half the money that they've spent suing the city into beautifying SDR Park everyone would be happier with the end result.

          • "ESG is located two blocks away from a 7-acre park." — only a very small portion of the 7-acre park is 2 blocks away. And there's a big difference between a garden and a park, esp' when the park is more asphalt and astroturf than grass. And a big chunk of the part of the park that's "2 blocks away" is claimed and locked by another group (and Mufunga keeps the park unsafe, so kids cannot use it). What part of SDR could they beautify???? Twisting the truth does not suit you. sad.

          • "reclaimed street parking for pedestrian areas and garden space." — I'm so sorry, but I didn't know that I was debating someone who has no sense of reality. More likely, you know better, but just don't have a case without suggesting the impossible. wow!

          • William Thomas

            How exactly is pedestrianizing streets "impossible?" Reality check, we're starting to do a lot of this already.
            https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2019/03/19/group-call
            https://www.wired.com/2016/08/downtown-manhattan-

          • Sharp piece on the overall issues. A trillion dollar real estate market has tremendous power and wields it with impunity. Having spearheaded with others the fight for Rivington House by opposing one of the (if not the) largest real estate company in the world –I’m well versed in this disaster as well as in the corrupting influence of money in politics.
            I’m also aware of the ESG’s pro bono lobbyist’s efforts on their behalf (hired by them in the first year of their efforts) – Capalino's company. This is the same company who wrote the original text for the rational to remove the deed restrictions on Rivington House and represented the original sellers of building and then represented one of the condo buyers (though he states that they never spoke of it).
            I disagree with your characterization of the issues specific to the ESG/HavenGreen dispute. ESG members have not found a ‘better’ site. The Hudson site above the city water tunnel needs vetting and engineering studies to find out what real options exist there. It is owned by DEP not HPD. And if /when it works out it needs to be built on too (as to Centre Street, not even ESG supporters mention it anymore – a non-starter). It was not in Chin’s power to decide anything about another CM’s district. Her job is to get affordable housing into hers.
            But more importantly to me? Why doesn't an affluent neighborhood like mine, whose most recent members have exacerbated skyrocketing rents and displacement, thus contributing to the departure of many long-time low-income neighbors (or those who currently live in affordable housing or those who own their homes) NOT feel some responsibility to share a city-owned site in our neighborhood with those who need (100% affordable) housing with a smaller garden space? Saying ‘build it across town’ is the very definition of Not in My Back Yard. You don’t get to do the easy “I want affordable housing – but not where I'd have to give something up” and have dispensed with our shared responsibility for our communities part to help in a crisis. In order to get 100% deeply affordable housing – you have to be the neighborhood that says “I want it here – no matter what".
            As to local vs city policy: The city should always hear from the local community, we know things they don’t and the local community has every right to our unique perspective. And those responsible to think about the interests of the entire city/Council District know things we don’t and they have every right to that unique perspective. In the end, an election was held. With all its flaws the only democratic process we have at the moment happened. Chin won. She didn’t “dig in her heels” (we call it Little Italy, not Nolita – a developers term) she simply followed the same advocacy bent she’s always had – starting with being a founder of AAFE – an affordable housing developer and she risked her election to do so.
            Thanks again for spearheading an important larger fight.

          • And yet you support the council member who colluded with the mayor to allow for the sale of Rivington House. Why didn't she tell us that DoH turned down Village Care's application to remove AIDS care from their mandate? She forced Village Care to sell to Allure. How much did Chin get from China Vanke on that deal? ugh.

            And you seem ok with Allure paying off local settlement groups with blood money instead of putting that money in escrow and using those millions later for additions to a future facility or buying back a floor of Rivington House. No one wants (or expects) Allure to build a facility in this area, so why didn't the AG just get $ from Allure, so we could have our own facility. The people fighting for Rivington House have been corrupted and have no reason to be trusted. Makes No Sense.

            And why don't you "NOT feel some responsibility to share a city-owned site in our neighborhood with those who need" and give the ESG kids half of your garden in SDR Park. You could help instead of continuing to be divisive. Your membership should know that your fight to take down one garden is going to cause them to lose part of theirs.

            It is unconscionable that the leaders of one garden would actively try to sink another garden. And when you lose your garden, cause it will happen, you're gonna need your neighbors (if you haven't sold out for big bucks by then.)

            Or are you ok with claiming: Not in My Back Yard when it comes to sharing SDR Park, but others can't??? Aren't you hurting your own causes while trying to hurt your neighbors' causes?

    • Huh? Existing residents do not have every interest in resisting local development. Some people want to see their kids able to able to live in the neighborhood they grew up in. And why is it that the neighborhoods that got targeted for rezoning or which are now targeted, residents had (or have) presented alternative responsible plans that were far better. In every case, such plans were universally ignored in favor of the imposed plan that juiced the profits of Big Real Estate. The problem is this: the job of the city is not to empower a single special interest lobby and institutionalize it in the regulatory agencies while declaring that lobby's interests are the same thing as the wider public good. That is what Bloomberg and De Blasio have done and it is a type of inside 'coup d'etat'. Citizens, voters, residents, and taxpayers widely construed are not a "special interest lobby" to be arrogantly dubbed "Nimbys in pursuit of exclusionary zoning" they way DCP wants to paint them. I think the commenter above has bought the Edward Glaeser line – hook line and sinker – that the only way to provide affordable housing is to juice the developer's bottom line using an enforced 'trickle down' ZQA approach. It is a policy that has weak theory behind it and is also one that has never worked anywhere in the country and is not working here, and won't work here. There are better ways to supply housing at the lower end of the market than what De Blasio is dong. But to get there, planners have to get over their professionally instilled bias that says that citizens, residents, and taxpayers are merely another special interest lobby incapable of understanding the public good (planners like Vicki Beene and their financial backers like Alicia Glen always seem to think that they are the only ones capable of understanding the wider public good). They seek to impose their own definition of it on everyone else in an autocratic, dictatorial way that is profoundly undemocratic.

      • Actually, I believe that planners are far too often fallable. They seek to impose their own views of the city's future rather than what they should be doing, which is accommodating organic growth and change in the city's residential and commercial markets. Right now, zoning is abused by both the planners and the locals to fight over how to constrain people's rights to move into the city (or within it) with minimal displacement by building new buildings. We need to stop abusing the government to do to this city and to neighborhoods what is completely unjust and artificial: making the city and neighborhoods a snowglobe for the rich and locals where nothing ever changes. We've resisted change for so long that there will be pain. But what De Blasio has done is put all that pain on less well-off areas of the city and that's largely because it is politically unfeasible to upzone rich but underbuilt areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. NYC used to be a place for dynamism and constant change that was recognized as good. It meant hope; it meant diversity; it meant opportunity.

        • In NYC the vast and overwhelming number of residents are not abusing zoning – except in the case of shrink-wrapped single family home neighborhoods with yards and parking garages like Gary Barnett's neighborhood (recall that Gary, the skyscraper developer, owns Extell).
          The whole "resistance to change" argument is utterly bogus and literally makes no sense. People are arguing over what kind of change, how big a change, and the direction of change, and the vision that is guiding change. Only people living in Goldman bubbles like Alicia Glen are so foolish and arrogant as to think people are resisting some conceptual nebulous blob called "change." We are much smarter than that, and obviously smarter than Alicia Glen (just less powerful…sadly). "Constant change" is recognized by "good" by who? And what is "constant change" anyway. The whole REBNY p.r. line about "change" and "amber" is a load of b.s. that obfuscates the issues and prevents useful policy discussion.

          • William Thomas

            Just in Queens, apartments aren't permitted in 37% of residential areas. (Link below) This is a real problem that we have to reckon with, and the onus is on you to prove that your arguments are substantially different from the people in the outer boroughs who "just want to maintain the character of the neighborhood." So far I don't see much daylight.
            https://medium.com/@mnolangray/where-are-apartmen

          • notice that single-family home neighborhoods with yards and garages are not part of the Humanscale coalition.

          • William Thomas

            I spy a Staten Island preservation group in there. Are they fighting only to save historic apartment buildings? (I'll save you some time, they're not)
            https://www.preservestatenisland.org/

          • Wow, you got burned, and SI was all you could come back with. You burned yourself with that. Talk about picking a gain of sand from an entire beach. Please tell us that you have more than one outlier. so sad.

          • William Thomas

            Lmao she said something about her coalition that wasn't true but yeah I got burned

        • "NYC used to be a place for dynamism and constant change" — Well, that's just a flat-out lie. If this had been a City of constant change, slum clearance would have never been necessary. We tore down so much of NYC during those years specifically because NYC did not Change for almost a century. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

    • Perhaps the reason local communities are always opposed to these top-down rezonings is there is nothing in these zooning actions but pain for the locals.

      The current Gowanus zoning proposal, has nothing in it for the community but pain, financial burden, environmental burdens, and complete annihilation of the character of the neighborhood from which the community takes its bearings.

      Meanwhile, the developers, like that of the new Gowanus Lightstone project, live in places like New Jersey, with 35 years of passing no taxes. And our elected officials tell us we should be content with their trickle-down affordable housing schemes that are only making life more expensive then before they affordable-housing schemes were passed.

  2. For those who are interested in more detailed profiles of the members of the City Planning Commission, please check out my longer paper on the matter that has footnotes and citations here (you might have to copy the link into your browser):
    https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/track?uri=ur

  3. Bravo Lynn Ellsworth for calling this "fox" out! To those who decry the civic engagement of we who actually LIVE in NYC and who, like myself, have tried to improve our neighborhoods (BTW in Brooklyn, when no one wanted to live in Brooklyn), I suggest that the ruination of NYC will be the continued disregard for communities – our knowledge, our good will, our volunteerism and our support. Case in point: We, the community (not politicians), came up with the plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park. We coalesced, advocated, raised funds, found funds and got the political will going to build a park in our borough – the borough that had the least amount of parklands per capita in NYC. We even found ways to pay for the park's maintenance with a minimal amount of commercial activity but commercial activity appropriate to a park and open to all – through restaurants, for-pay marina, conference center and philanthropy among the many sources of income to fund the park (a stipulation the community also put upon ourselves…foolishly it turns out….). But no, politicians saw a way to use our good will and creativity to reward the real estate lobby (and shake them down as ALL our local pols did for their re-election campaigns). Housing inside this park was going to "pay" for the park, permanently privatizing public lands. Plus, the pols set up this condo-park in such a way that it took tax dollars out of the general fund (in the form of PILOT's) and gave those who live inside the park their taxes back to green up their front lawns. And permanently took park LANDS out of PARK use! Sound bad? It got worse. By building luxury housing INSIDE the borders of our park it opened the door to extreme commercialization and privatization of public lands and they have even privatized the administration of these lands to avoid community engagement or even, accountability, by our elected officials. The "payments in lieu of taxes" is fully controlled by the EDC, and not even the parks department has a say in the administration of the land left over for park use. Plus, they didn't even need 1/2 of the housing they built – the excess in tax revenue that this "park" administration keeps is obscene. And the rest of us have to pay for the park residents' share of fire, police, school, sanitation, etc.

    Completely and utterly dismissing the good work of communities to improve, not destroy, our city has made NYC livable in the first place but moves like what the EDC has created with the condo-park project in Brooklyn is what will destroy our city. Without pioneers and the creativity of we Brooklynites who came up with all the designs and push and even real money to make a park, nothing would have happened along the waterfront. But the politicians and their surrogates at EDC have literally ruined community engagement with lies, with ill will, with greed for campaigns and temporal political status…to the ultimate demise of what has made our city so great . Once we lose all the publicly owned land for private real estate development, then what? That should worry people who live here today as much as it will hurt those who might come in the future.

    • Nicely summarized and correct.

    • Well written-Sadly many of us know this story only too well. We need a "real" Mayor who truly cares about this city and its citizens. Mayors have become partners, some would say shills for this kind of egregious privatization of public lands and the current one with stars in his eyes is now even giving away playgrounds, parks, nursing homes and public housing land to developers. I doubt we will ever get that kind of Mayor because pay to play (once known as graft) is too ingrained in the culture of NY politics.

  4. Thank you Lynn for this well researched and thoughtful piece telling the truth about why there is construction on every corner in this town. Let's hope we can get through to the Charter Commission and STOP the destruction of our city before it's too late!

  5. Alison Greenberg

    Another brilliant, well-researched piece by Lynn Ellsworth.

    Bad development is out of control. We need electeds and political appointees to do the right thing.

    Fix the charter. Stop the conflicts of interest. Stop the bad development.

  6. Lynn, great piece. I have said for about thirty years that the CPC should just stop the charade and be honest and change their name to the CZC, the City Zoning Commission. There is no real planning, they merely change the zoning to suit the real estate demands. For the most part REBNY and their developer friends get what they want. There are 4-6 variance or special permit applications in my community board in southern Brooklyn almost every meeting, and in over 36 years of following them, perhaps they said no twice. LOL And City Hall should also be renamed REBNY HALL. http://www.saveNYCjobs.org

  7. Ground Control

    An honest and well conceived piece by a true advocate for this city and it’s residents. City planning? I didn’t think there was any. One need only look at Hudson Yards to know that. But then that was never meant for New York City residents anyway. A “luxury” theme park shopping mall plopped into a space having no relationship to this city. Were anything in NY actually need or market driven, instead of building pied-a-terres for the 1% developers would be building middle class and affordable housing. And City Planning would be creating a mindset to do it! It’s largely because of the marriage between City Hall, the BSA, City Planning, the DOB and REBNY that what’s being built is purely profit driven to enrich a class of people who seem never to have enough money. Many of the condos in those super tall towers will have few takers and may shock some who believe that if you build it they will come. And as a result of hubris and poor planning the middle class, working class and working poor will continue to be displaced.

    • Hudson Yards is NOT a residential community. It's an investment market for those with big money who do not want to get burned by another recession. A lot of these penthouses will be bought and held as a tax shelter and money laundering until the next market crash, then the sales will begin, the area will collapse, and the taxpayers of this City will be left holding the bag. Talk about short sighted development. But the builders got their money, so they couldn't care less.

  8. Honest assessment of the make up of our city agencies that make crucial land use decisions. Look at what recently happened at the 14th Street Tech Hub! That city owned land was upzoned by the city (with no thanks to Carlina Rivera who spent her days on the campaign trail lying to District 2 that she wouldn't approve the Tech Hub without neighborhood protections on Broadway and 3rd Ave. and then approved it anyway) As it turns out the developer chosen for the Tech Hub is…… a de Blasio Donor who has been given an annual rent on a 22 story building that is pretty much the same as the rent for a 2 story PC Richards. This project should have never been approved, but as the author notes, the Fox is guarding the hen house.

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